UN human rights chief calls for release of Saudi activists

In a wide-ranging speech, Michelle Bachelet addresses human rights issues in Venezuela, China and Saudi Arabia.

    UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet was a victim of torture during the Pinochet regime in Chile [Denis Balibouse/Reuters]
    UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet was a victim of torture during the Pinochet regime in Chile [Denis Balibouse/Reuters]

    The United Nations human rights chief has called on Saudi Arabia to release women activists allegedly tortured in detention after Saudi authorities accused them of harming the country's interests.

    In a wide-ranging speech on Wednesday, Michelle Bachelet addressed claims by activists that 10 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 - told the UN Human Rights Council at a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland.

    "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 said.

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    Saudi Arabia's public prosecutor is preparing the trials of the women, identified by watchdog groups as women's rights activists, after completing its investigations, state news agency SPA said last Friday. 

    The Saudi office denied the claims of torture, calling the reports "false".

    On Thursday, European countries will urge Saudi Arabia to release activists and cooperate with a UN-led probe into the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in an unprecedented rebuke of the kingdom at the Human Rights Council.

    'Very serious issues'

    During Wednesday's speech, which followed the publication of her annual report, Bachelet said she regretted Israel's "immediate dismissal" of a recent UN report about its security forces killing protesters in Gaza "without addressing any of the very serious issues raised".

    A recent UN report suggested Israeli soldiers committed crimes against humanity in response to 2018 protests in Gaza [File: Tsafrir Abayov/AP Photo]

    Taking aim at the ongoing Israeli blockade of Gaza, now in its 12th year, Bachelet pointed out the high levels of unemployment and reliance on humanitarian assistance among Gaza's residents. She called for "restraint" on all sides ahead of the March 30 anniversary of the start of weekly protests by Palestinians to demand the right of return to their ancestral lands.

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    She also addressed concerns raised by illegal settlements in the West Bank, which she said "affect all aspects of Palestinians' daily lives, including significant negative impact on freedom of movement and access to work, education and healthcare".

    "Imposing economic hardship on Palestinians does not make Israelis safer," she said. 

    Addressing issues elsewhere in the Middle East, Bachelet condemned Turkey's prolonged crackdown on dissent following a failed coup attempt in 2016 and the fallout from ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen

    Hope and alarm in Latin America

    Turning to Latin America, the former Chilean president addressed the "alarming" multiple crises engulfing Venezuela.

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    "The situation in Venezuela clearly illustrates the way violations of civil and political rights - including failure to uphold fundamental freedoms, and the independence of key institutions - can accentuate a decline of economic and social rights," Bachelet said.

    "This situation has been exacerbated by sanctions, and the resulting current political, economic, social and institutional crisis is alarming." 

    More than 300 people have been killed in Nicaragua since protests began in April, according to the UN [File: Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters]

    A ray of hope was visible in Bachelet's comments on Nicaragua, where President Daniel Ortega has agreed to resume talks with opposition groups after months of violent state repression

    "The government must ensure that the dialogue is respectful, safe and inclusive of all political actors and civil society groups," she said.

    "It is my hope that it will lead to concrete steps to better uphold all human rights, including freedom of expression, victims' rights to truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-repetition and economic and social rights."

    The problem of inequality

    France was rocked by waves of protest against planned diesel-fuel tax increases [File: Thibault Camus/AP Photo]

    Throughout her remarks, Bachelet frequently returned to the theme of inequality and its negative impacts. 

    "In recent months, we have seen people across the world take to the streets to protest inequalities and deteriorating economic and social conditions.

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    "Their demands call for respectful dialogue and genuine reform. And yet, in several cases, they are being met with violent and excessive use of force, arbitrary detentions, torture and even alleged summary or extrajudicial killings," Bachelet said, making reference to recent widespread protest movements in Sudan, Haiti and France.

    Addressing religious inequality, Bachelet identified China and India as areas of concern regarding repression of Muslim minorities. 

    India has seen an increase in attacks on Muslims under its Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, while China is facing increasing criticism for its treatment of its Uighur Muslim ethnic-minority group. 

    "My office seeks to engage on this issue with the [Chinese] government for full access to carry out an independent assessment of the continuing reports pointing to wide patterns of enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions, particularly in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region," Bachelet said.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies