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DPI - Press Releases

27 March 1998



The Commission on Human Rights began discussion this evening of agenda items on the situation of migrant workers, the rights of minorities, and implementation of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.

Violence against migrant workers was mentioned repeatedly, along with concern over the safety and security of women migrants and over trafficking in women.

A representative of Ireland appealed for greater religious tolerance, while non-governmental organizations (NGOs) issued charges of religious discrimination -- including killings -- in a number of countries.

Earlier in the evening session, the Commission concluded its annual review of 'indigenous issues'. A series of NGOs urged the Commission to take action on efforts to conclude a draft declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples and to create a forum for such peoples within the United Nations system. They also called for greater support for rights and causes of indigenous peoples in countries ranging from the United States to Australia.

Speaking at the evening meeting were representatives of Cape Verde, Ireland, and Costa Rica.

The following NGOs provided statements: International Commission of Jurists; International Federation of Rural Adult Catholic Movements; Lutheran World Federation; North-South XXI; World Alliance of Reformed Churches; International League for the Rights and Liberation of Peoples; World Federation for Mental Health; World Wide Fund for Nature; Service, Peace, and Justice in Latin America; International Indian Treaty Council; Centre Europe - Tiers Monde; World Council of Churches; Human Rights Advocates; Pax Romana; International Educational Development; Aliran; International Association for the Defense of Religious Freedom; African Commission of Health and Human Rights Promoters; Association for World Education; and Christian Solidarity International.

The Commission will reconvene at 10 a.m. Monday, 30 March, to continue its review religious intolerance and of the rights of minorities and migrant workers.

Measures to Ensure Human Rights and Dignity of Migrant Workers

The Commission this afternoon took up the question of measures to improve and ensure the human rights and dignity of all migrant workers. In that context, the Commission has before it the report of the Secretary-General on violence against women migrant workers (E/CN.4/1998/74), which includes information on the issue received from the Governments of Cyprus, Finland, Haiti, Jordan, Mauritius, Mexico, Morocco, the Philippines, and the Russian Federation. The report also include comments from intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations concerned and United Nations bodies. An addendum to the report contains comments submitted by non-governmental organizations.

The Commission also has before it the report of the Secretary-General on the status of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (E/CN.4/1998/75). According to that document, as of 1 December 1997, the treaty has been ratified or acceded to by Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cape Verde, Colombia, Egypt, Morocco, the Philippines, Seychelles, Sri Lanka and Uganda and signed by Chile and Mexico. The Convention shall enter into force on the first day of the month following a period of three months after the date of the deposit of the twentieth instrument of ratification or accession.

A report by Jorge Bustamante (Mexico), Chairman-Rapporteur of the working group of intergovernmental experts on the human rights of migrants (E/CN.4/1998/76), meanwhile, states that among its preliminary findings more than one third of States surveyed by the group expressly recognized the existence of problems of prejudice, xenophobia or racial discrimination against migrants in their respective territories. This was interpreted by the group of experts as an empirical indication of awareness of widespread violations of the human rights of migrants. The Working Group addressed itself to drawing up a programme of work to enable it to elaborate a set of recommendations to strengthen the promotion, protection and implementation of the human rights of migrants. It recommends that the Commission consider authorizing it to meet twice annually or two sessions of five days each.

Rights of Persons Belonging to Minorities

The Commission is reviewing the rights of persons belonging to national, ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and has before it the report of the Secretary-General on this issue (E/CN.4/1998/90). The report contains an overview of such: the concluding observations relating to the rights of persons belonging to minorities of the Human Rights Committee and the Committee on the Rights of the Child; the visit of the Special Rapporteur on religious intolerance to Australia in February/March 1997; the activities of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the territory of the former Yugoslavia related to the human rights situation in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia; and the work of the Working Group on Minorities.

Elimination of Religious Intolerance

The Commission also began considering this afternoon the elimination of intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief with the aid of the latest report by Abdelfattah Amor, Special Rapporteur on this issue (E/CN.4/1998/6). The Special Rapporteur writes in his report that action to promote religious freedom, tolerance and non-discrimination is closely linked to action to promote democracy and development. It also notes that religious extremism produces situations which are difficult to control and can imperil the human right to peace.

The Special Rapporteur says that the issue of sects or new religious movements is complicated by the fact that international human rights instruments provide no definition of the concept of religion and do not mention the concepts of sect and new religious movement. He recommends that necessary resources be made available to enable him to initiate studies of the problem of sects and new religious movements. He also urges States to take all necessary action to combat hatred, intolerance and acts of violence, intimidation and coercion motivated by intolerance based on religion or belief, including practices which violate the human rights of women and discriminate against them.

In an supplement to his report (E/CN.4/1998/6/Add.1), Mr. Amor calls Australia?s attachment to democracy, its sound democratic institutions and the Government's multi-cultural policy undeniable factors of religious tolerance. Religious, in particular Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist minorities, generally express satisfaction regarding their situation. Obstacles to the construction of places of worship are sometimes observed, but this is mostly due to opposition by one sector of the population founded on ignorance, which encourages manifestations of racism. The Special Rapporteur recalls that education can play a prime role in preventing intolerance. He welcomes the efforts of the authorities to ensure that Aborigines cease to be an excluded community and enjoy all their rights through the application of the principle of positive discrimination.

In another addendum (E/CN.4/1998/6/Add.2), Mr. Amor reports on his visit to Germany. He writes that as regards legislation, the provisions of the German Constitution fully guarantee freedom of religion and belief. Within this overall framework of freedom of religion and freedom of belief, people can and do express themselves. The Jewish community is able to flourish as a religious minority and enjoys very active political, institutional and financial support from the State. The situation of the Muslim minority is markedly less favourable, although on the whole it is not unsatisfactory. Concerning other groups and communities, there is no obstacle to the exercise of their activities, with the exception of the Church of Scientology. What that group faces can be described as a climate of suspicious, or latent intolerance. The Special Rapporteur concludes that the State, beyond day-to-day management, must implement a strategy to prevent intolerance in the field of religion and belief. He recommends a campaign to develop awareness among the media.

Statements in Debate

ADAMA DIENG, of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), said the group considered that the draft declaration on indigenous rights was a sound document and agreed with those who called for its speedy adoption in its present form. The group also understood that the issue was sensitive and represented a clash of cultures and economic and political pressures. Australia was an example of a country grappling with the legal, political, and social implications of 200 years of legal dispossession and destruction of indigenous societies; to its great credit it had made much progress in the past 20 years in initiating reforms. However, a great deal of its accomplishments now were threatened by a political backlash which had led to proposals for legislative action which could erode indigenous peoples' rights, including possible rolling back of provisions of Australia's race-discrimination act. The ICJ viewed such retrograde possibilities with great concern. It also shared the concern of many indigenous peoples with the inclusion of annexes reflecting Government proposals to the recent working-group report -- they were a departure from the spirit of the procedures adopted for the negotiation of the text of a draft declaration.

The representative of the International Federation of Rural Adult Catholic Movements said indigenous women from the Americas met in Mexico in December 1997 to share their local experiences in search of alternatives to dynamize the participation of indigenous women in social, economic, cultural and political processes. They had proposed that their ideas be incorporated in the actions of indigenous peoples, governments and all other initiatives. In Ecuador, a group of indigenous peoples had elaborated a forum to guarantee the application of individual and collective rights of the people.

REV. MARGARET ROBERTS, of the Lutheran World Federation, said consideration of the report of the open-ended inter-sessional working group on indigenous people was frustrating because behind it lay many hours of work for indigenous representatives trying to tread the fine line between not wanting to dilute a text which already represented the minimum standards for their survival and accepting the insistence of some Governments that they had to review the text article-by-article. Governments had the resources to sustain their participation in that debate, year after year, but it was another considerable burden for the limited and threatened resources of indigenous communities. What was needed was that the sense of urgency and willingness to complete the task quickly remained uppermost. The United Nations forum must continually remind itself that the threat to the survival of indigenous peoples was ever present.

TOMAS CONDORI, of North-South XXI, said years of valuable work had led certain States to improve the legal situation of indigenous nations. Such international actions had had a positive influence on national legislation; the new Constitution of Bolivia, for example, recognized many rights of indigenous peoples, including their right to community-held land. Nonetheless, it was necessary to say that practice had not been in line with the letter of the law; in recent years indigenous peoples had reclaimed themselves, had communicated with each other through the Internet; still repeated cases of violation of indigenous rights, including through violation of the relevant International Labour Office convention, continued. One example was the struggle of the people of Chiapas, in Mexico; in other countries of Latin America, resources were being stripped from indigenous lands, either through petroleum exploitation or through large infrastructure projects, or through loss of water which led to desertification of indigenous lands. Pollution of rivers and lakes was another threat. Fast action on the draft declaration was needed to protect indigenous peoples.

MILAN OPOCENSKY, of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, said many indigenous communities were aware of the dynamism of the restructuring of the global economy. At an international consultation of indigenous peoples hosted by the churches and held in Baguio City, Philippines, late last year, it had been said that the indigenous had become squatters in their own lands due to globalization and laws and policies of governments which disregarded the interests and welfare of indigenous and other oppressed people. Indigenous peoples had already shared the wealth of their resources and their lives throughout history. Of course, some of the sharing had been done under force or manipulation, but some had also resulted from mutual choice and satisfaction. The current Decade of the indigenous people should serve to reinforce new partnerships with them.

VERENA GRAF, of the International League for the Rights and Liberation of Peoples, said that it was imperative that indigenous peoples all over the world be given the right to freely decide about all aspects of their life. The organization hoped that should the High Commissioner for Human Rights have the possibility of personally visiting indigenous territories, that would prove most beneficial in helping fostering causes such as the issue of land tenancy. The organization expressed its full support for the establishment of an open-ended ad hoc group with regard the permanent forum for indigenous peoples in the United Nations system.

MONTE KNIGHT, of the International Peace Bureau, said the Commission should imply, demand, or inquire if the laws of Government were just and valid; if so, the Bureau had nothing to do and stood on treaties negotiated and signed by the United States of America over 100 years ago with the Lakota nation. Lakota honoured the treaties signed with sovereign nations, but the Commission gave seats to other sovereign nations but not the Lakota sovereign nation. How could you trust a system that did not obey its own human-rights voice? It was time to stop the negative bureaucratic maneuvering; Lakota children were killing themselves in despair. Right now, uranium mining threatened to contaminate acquifers on traditional native land; mine tailings were poisoning those living on native reservations; life was being disfigured, just like the truth. It was time to stand in the light of the truth; the United States must wake up.

WILDA SPALDING, of the World Federation for Mental Health, said bombs were not the only thing that gouged the land and brought death to people. For those who held their very land as sacred, a mining bulldozer could be emotionally and psychologically devastating, too. The Federation had been emphasizing the need for the United Nations system to give as much weight to natural, sacred spaces as they did to man-made sacred places, such as monasteries, temples, and mosques. The land on which many indigenous had lived for generations was often not only a political, territorial claim but was deeply connected to the soul of their people's sacred ways, delicately entwined with the mental health of the people and their community. It was hardly surprising that there could be a negative psychological impact when people were uprooted and displaced forcibly from what they considered as their deep inner roots.

KAORI TAHARA, of the World Wide Fund for Nature, said she was one of the first four participants of the first Fellowship Programme for Indigenous Organisations and Communities launched in 1997. It was a good opportunity and experience. She encouraged Member States to make contributions to the Voluntary Fund for the International Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights should participate more effectively with the Programme. The Office should also collaborate with other United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations.

EMMA C. MAZA, of Service, Peace, and Justice in Latin America, said it was concerned over the situation of indigenous peoples, who in many cases lived in extreme poverty; one example was Mexico, where such peoples suffered from endemic poverty that reflected racial discrimination predominating there. Land distribution remained a serious difficulty and cause of suffering there; in Mexico an indigenous uprising had shaken the conscience of many Mexicans, but nonetheless a military presence in all indigenous areas of the country, along with paramilitary groups, were exerting pressure and even causing massacres of indigenous residents. More than 1,500 people had been killed in Chiapas since the 'cease fire' there; those who supported them were subject to reprisals as well; Constitutional reforms drawn up had been refused by the federal Government in defiance of the San Andreas Agreements. Greater social polarization was taking place in a context of police and military abuse; one result could be war.

JORGE TOLENTINO ARAUJO (Cape Verde) said the theme related to the human rights and dignity of all migrant workers was of utmost importance and fortunately had been enjoying the attention of the United Nations system, in particular of the Commission. Migrations was a constant in the history of humankind and should be understood as a trait of human society itself. The causes were diverse and complex and should be addressed in a constructive manner, if a future of mutual understanding and solidarity was to be built. Migrant workers and specially those coming from Africa, were victims of growing manifestations of discrimination and xenophobia, which aggravated even more the hardships that they traditionally faced in the receiving countries. In recent years, the indicators of racial exclusion and violence against migrant workers had grown due to campaigns by political extremists and hostility against foreigners.

ANNE ANDERSON (Ireland) said despite the solemn commitments by States, violations of the most fundamental aspects of the right to religious freedom continued to occur in many regions. The spectrum from imperfection to gross violation was a wide one. In the most severe cases, members of minority religions had been subjected to systematic persecution on account of their religions or beliefs. This had involved torture, summary executions and other measures. There were many situations around the world in which practice fell well short of the standards the international community had set itself. There were particularly vulnerable groups such as the Bahai community in many countries, but particularly in Iran. There were places such as Tibet where the population suffered from sustained attempts to undermine their ethnic, cultural and religious identity. There were also situations where religious considerations were advanced to justify actions which fundamentally violated the rights of women, actions by the Taliban in Afghanistan being the most egregious example. Ireland would this year again introduce a draft resolution on the elimination of all forms of intolerance based on religion and belief.

GIOCONDA UBEDA (Costa Rica) said the end of years of war in Central America had meant that migration had adopted new forms -- it was no longer a case of refugees from violence but from natural disasters and low wages. Costa Rica was a recipient country; it had some 400,000 illegal immigrants; it provided many services for them, including education; although these flows of migrants continually increased, the budget for these services didn't, and a breakdown of the social security system of the entire country was possible. These weren't 'refugees' as defined by many, but they were refugees nonetheless; the country was developing a new migrant policy to cope; the rights of migrants were being strengthened, and foreigners and citizens would receive the same treatment except when it came to voting. In addition, trafficking in human beings in the region was increasing; this practice was being combatted with legal and administrative means in cooperation with other Governments of the region.

RICHARD GARCIA and KEE WATCHMAN, of the International Indian Treaty Council, said that during his visit to Arizona, United States, the Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, Abdelfattah Amor, had heard evidence from indigenous people, tribes, organizations and spiritual societies, as well as non-indigenous organizations and government officials. The testimony and the documentations he received demonstrated a consistent and ongoing pattern of violations of the freedom of religion. Specific violations presented to Mr. Amor included forced relocation, land appropriations, non-respect of treaty obligations and the destruction of sacred sites.

MALIK OZDEN, of Centre Europe-Tiers Monde, said the group wished to highlight four cases of people working at diplomatic missions accredited to the United Nations. One case involved a person who had not been paid a salary for more than two-and-a-half years and barely got enough to eat. The others involved shamefully underpaid employees. Those cases had been brought up before the Swiss courts and adjudicated in favour of the employees. The courts had demanded that employers pay reparations of up to 20,000 Swiss francs. However, most of the sentences had not been carried out. The group had intervened on the same issue several times but nothing had changed -- Swiss court sentences continued to be flaunted. The Chairman had to intervene to ensure that this insult be corrected and to end the impunity granted by diplomatic immunity.

PATRICK TARAN, of the World Council of Churches, speaking on behalf of three other church-based NGOs, said migrant workers were more and more frequently made the scapegoats for all manner of domestic problems facing societies, including unemployment, crime, drugs, and even terrorism. Women migrants faced yet another layer of discrimination and lack of protection of basic rights. The mandate of the intergovernmental working group on migrants should be extended; many more ratifications should be made to the International Convention on protection of the rights of migrant workers and their families; it was discouraging that the Convention was the only one of seven basic global human-rights protection mechanisms not in force. Deep concern must be expressed at the trend in violence against migrants in many countries of Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. Major efforts must be made to combat these problems.

JOSE S. FRANCO, of Human Rights Advocates, said global economic restructuring, escalating poverty and violent conflict had led to a steady increase of the number of migrant workers worldwide, with an increased number of human rights abuses. The United States was one of the countries that had recently moved to increase patrols along their borders in an effort to stop the influx of migrants from neighbouring countries. That had resulted in human rights violations. Another area of concern involved the trafficking of women and children in order to exploit them by forcing them to work in slavery-like conditions.

MERCEDES MOYA, of the American Association of Jurists, said in seeking the history and causes of slavery, domination and exploitation should not continue to be concealed so that they did not continue to cover reasons of exclusion and marginalization. Slavery driven by colonizations had led to the dislocation of many people, like the Africans. In America, although slavery had been abolished, minorities, particularly Afro-Americans, still suffered from racial discrimination and marginalization. That was because fighting such marginalization was sometimes not in the interests of countries and transnational groups. The Commission should establish a careful study of African-Americans in the United States and Latin American countries to ascertain their situation; that would help promote solidarity and end 500 years of discrimination.

GERHARD RAM MOLT, of Pax Romana, said the organization remained concerned by discrimination and persecution against Buddhist Hoa Hao church by the Vietnamese Government. The head of the group had been assassinated by the Communist Party of Vietnam; others with leading positions in the church had been arbitrarily arrested, sent to prison without trial, and tortured to death; members of the church were under surveillance and often arbitrarily detained; the Government still harassed Hoa Hao and continued to systematically oppose all operations of the church; soon the church would be completely eliminated -- a kind of extermination that was politically motivated. These massive human-rights violations should be considered crimes against humanity and sanctioned by an international penal tribunal.

KAREN PARKER, of Humanitarian Law Project, said Senegal, in its report to the Human Rights Committee, had indicated that there were no minorities in the country. The group had already indicated the renewed troubles between the Government and the Diola people of the Casamance region, which had resulted in at least 400 deaths in a month of fighting between the Casamance Movement of Democratic Forces and the Government last autumn. The planting of land mines in the region by the Movement was of great concern. While there had been several cease-fires, talks which were to have taken place in 1996 had been delayed because of dissension within the Movement. Although the conflict was not yet at a level to qualify as civil war, the international community and the Government of Senegal should take action to resolve the issue of concern to the Diola people to avoid all-out war.

DEBORAH STOTHARD, of Aliran Kesedaran Negara - National Consciousness Movement, said it was always a cause of great concern when individuals and communities were denied their civil, political, economic, cultural and social rights because of religious beliefs, more so when such practices were being systematically perpetrated by governments and their agents. Aliran was disappointed that some governments persisted in denying the existence of religious intolerance. Religion continued to be used as an excuse to inflict human rights violations -- including murder, assault, rape, and robbery -- upon significant numbers of people across the world. Burma was a case in point. There the military regime had been systematically targeting religious minorities for harassment. The clergy of the majority religion, Buddhism, had also been subject to harassment, threats and imprisonment. Such intolerance fractured society and had severe consequences on the long-term peace and stability of the world. All States were called upon to commit themselves to the noble aims of eliminating all form of intolerance and discrimination, including that based on religion or belief.

MAURICE VERFAILLIE, of the International Association for the Defense of Religious Freedom, said there were still in the world States that had not taken legislative or other measures to combat intolerance or other discrimination based on religion. Even in States where there were guarantees, there were gaps between Constitutional provisions and local enforcement. In Pakistan, two Christians were in jail because they had been seen reading the Bible and accused of 'blasphemy'; laws on blasphemy had been part of Pakistan's penal code since 1996. And there were other victims in Pakistan, including many evangelical Christians. Other religious discrimination existed in Bhutan. There was a burning urgency to strengthen protections for those subject to religious discrimination. Religious extremism was another concern -- Government responses could be overzealous in some cases, resulting in violence.

CHARLES GRAVES, of the African Commission of Health and Human Rights Promoters, said the problem of religious intolerance in Iraq continued to worry his group, which none the less welcomed the efforts made by the Special Rapporteur on religious intolerance to document the many human rights violations against Arab Shi'a religious leaders and believers in Iraq. Iraq had refuted the allegations of attacks on pilgrims travelling to the holy town of Kerbal, and stressed that there were no restrictions on visits to holy places. However, in March-April 1991, the Iraqi regime had bombarded the holy cities of Kerbala and Najaf.

REV. MARGARET ROBERTS, of the Lutheran World Federation, said she spoke on behalf of her organization, the World Council of Churches, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conferences of European Churches. The groups regularly received disturbing reports of increasing incidences of intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief. When churches promoted an end to intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief, they did so with humility and repentance. The Church's own history of religious intolerance and discrimination had been openly confessed. However, Governments also continued to practice repression and discrimination; that was illegal and immoral and deserved the severest condemnation by the international community. The ecumenical fellowship was concerned, among others, about the increasing number of conflicts between religious minorities and majorities and attempts by Governments to control and regulate religions and religious organizations

SOHEIB BENCHEIKH, of the Association for World Education, said contemporary forms of intolerance were coming increasingly from non-State pressure and intimidation groups; it was time for the Commission to confront such intolerance wherever it existed. Muslims suffered from a kind of Islamophobia in some western countries, while in the East they were threatened by extremist interpreters of Islam; the crisis was of international scope. Islam was a theology that had been elaborated at a time eight centuries ago when nations rarely bumped against each other; the religion was having a difficult time moving into modernity; numerous groups were fighting and holding with unbelievable conviction to Muslim strictures that were outdated. In Algeria, for example, extremist groups were contending that anyone who tried to change the religion as they interpreted

it should be killed. It was important to develop a culture of tolerance. Muslim thinkers must break their shameful silence and call for reform of theology and a re-reading of theology with concern for the situation of the modern world.

MAX-PETER STUSSI, of Christian Solidarity International, highlighted intolerance in many parts of the world. In china, despite economic openness, religious believers, Buddhists, Christians and Muslims were still victims of persecution from the side of the State. The exiled Tibetan Dali Lama, and the imprisoned Catholic Bishop Zhu Zhemin were tow powerful symbols of that persecution with directly or indirectly affected the whole population of China. Moreover, the group was especially concerned about the systematic and brutal religious discrimination in countries where the totalitarian ideology of jihad was a powerful factor in public life.

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