We are grateful to the Cathaoirleach and the committee members for their invitation to come before them today to discuss Amnesty International’s global report on the state of the world’s human rights in 2014. As the Chairman mentioned, I am joined by my colleague, Ashling Seely, who is our Stop Torture campaigns officer.
Last year, 2014, was a devastating year for those seeking to stand up for human rights and for those caught up in the suffering of war zones. Governments across the world pay lip service to the importance of protecting civilians and yet the world's politicians have miserably failed to protect those in greatest need. Amnesty International believes that this can and must finally change.
International humanitarian law could not be clearer. Attacks must never be directed against civilians. The principle of distinguishing between civilians and combatants is a fundamental safeguard for people caught up in the horrors of war and yet, time and again, civilians bear the brunt in conflict. In the year marking the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, politicians repeatedly trampled on the rules protecting civilians or looked away from the deadly violations of these rules committed by others. Last year, 2014, was a year of international failures.
The UN Security Council had repeatedly failed to address the crisis in Syria in earlier years, when countless lives could still have been saved. That failure continued in 2014, and now into 2015. In the past four years, more than 200,000 people have died - overwhelmingly civilians - and mostly in attacks by government forces. Approximately 4 million people from Syria are now refugees in other countries, and more than 7.6 million are displaced inside Syria.
The Syrian crisis is intertwined with that of its neighbour, Iraq. The armed group calling itself Islamic State, which has been responsible for war crimes in Syria, has carried out abductions, execution-style killings and ethnic cleansing on a massive scale in north Iraq. In parallel, Iraq's Shia militias abducted and killed scores of Sunni civilians, with the tacit support of the Iraqi government.
The July assault on Gaza by Israeli forces caused the loss of 2,000 Palestinian lives. Yet again, the vast majority of those - at least 1,500 - were civilians. The policy was, as Amnesty International argued in a detailed analysis, marked by callous indifference and involved war crimes. Hamas also committed war crimes by firing indiscriminate rockets into Israel causing six deaths.
The report of the United Nations Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza conflict issued on 22 June this year marks an important step towards accountability for all the victims and their families. It is a welcome, independent validation of Amnesty International’s extensive research into last year’s conflict, which found that both sides carried out a litany of appalling violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. The evidence is overwhelming, and now the members and observer states of the UN Human Rights Council must give the commission’s findings and recommendations serious consideration, refrain from politicising the commission or its report, and ensure the council takes all appropriate measures necessary to ensure accountability.
In Nigeria, the conflict in the north between government forces and the armed group Boko Haram burst onto the world's front pages with the abduction, by Boko Haram, of 276 schoolgirls in the town of Chibok, one of countless crimes committed by the group. The committee members will be aware of other atrocities that followed late last year and early this year. Less noticed were horrific crimes committed by Nigerian security forces and those working with them against people believed to be members or supporters of Boko Haram, some of which were recorded on video, revealed by Amnesty International in August 2014. Bodies of the murdered victims were tossed into a mass grave.
There are serious concerns about the increasing use of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment against suspected Boko Haram members and supporters. Recent Amnesty research indicates that police and military personnel routinely use torture and other ill-treatment to extract information and so-called confessions, and to punish and exhaust detainees. In contravention of national and international law, information extracted by torture and ill-treatment is routinely accepted as evidence in court. The Nigerian authorities display an apparent lack of political will to adhere to their international human rights obligations. The committee members will have received a copy of our report on torture in Nigeria in recent months.
In the Central African Republic, more than 5,000 people died in sectarian violence despite the presence of international forces. The torture, rape and mass murder barely made a showing on the world's front pages. Yet again, the majority of those who died were civilians.
In South Sudan, the world's newest state, tens of thousands of civilians were killed and 2 million fled their homes in the armed conflict between government and opposition forces. War crimes and crimes against humanity were committed on both sides.
The list I have outlined, as our 2014 annual report on the state of human rights in 160 countries clearly shows, barely begins to scratch the surface. Some might argue that nothing can be done, that war has always been at the expense of the civilian population, and that nothing can ever change, but that is wrong. It is essential to confront violations against civilians, and to bring to justice those responsible. One obvious and practical step is waiting to be taken. Amnesty International has welcomed the proposal, now backed by more than 40 governments, for the UN Security Council to adopt a code of conduct agreeing voluntarily to refrain from using the veto in a way which would block Security Council action in situations of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. That would be an important first step and could save many lives.
The failures, however, have not just been in terms of preventing mass atrocities. Direct assistance has also been denied to the millions who have fled the violence that has engulfed their villages and towns. Those governments which have been the most eager to speak out loudly on the failures of other governments have shown themselves reluctant to step forward and provide the essential assistance those refugees require, both in terms of financial assistance and providing resettlement. Approximately 2% of refugees from Syria had been resettled by the end of 2014, a figure which must at least triple in 2015.
Meanwhile, large numbers of refugees and migrants are losing their lives in the Mediterranean Sea as they try desperately to reach European shores. A lack of support by some EU member states for search and rescue missions has contributed to the shocking loss of life. The death toll this year, from 1 January to 31 May 2015, stands at 1,865. This number will rise as more people attempt the journey in the finer weather. It is vital that safe and legal access routes to Europe be made available to those seeking protection. The ongoing failure to do so has placed desperate migrants at the mercy of people traffickers and forced hundreds of thousands to take to unsafe and unsuitable vessels in a desperate attempt to cross the Mediterranean with often lethal consequences.
More must also be done to address the reasons so many are fleeing conflict. On Syria, Amnesty International continues to urge the Security Council to impose an arms embargo on the Syrian Government and targeted sanctions against individuals on all sides responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity. One further step that could be taken to protect civilians in conflict would be to further restrict the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. This would have saved many lives in Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists, despite unconvincing denials by Moscow of its involvement, and pro-Kiev forces targeted civilian neighbourhoods.
The importance of the rules on protection of civilians means there must be true accountability and justice when these rules are violated.
Other areas of human rights continue to require improvement. In Mexico, the enforced disappearance of 43 students in September 2014 was a recent tragic addition to the more than 22,000 people who have disappeared or gone missing in Mexico since 2006. Most are believed to have been abducted by criminal gangs but many are reported to have been subjected to enforced disappearance by police and military, sometimes acting in collusion with those gangs. The few victims whose remains have been found show signs of torture and other ill-treatment. The federal and state authorities have failed to investigate these crimes to establish the possible involvement of state agents and to ensure effective legal recourse for the victims, including their relatives. In addition to the lack of response, the government has attempted to cover up the human rights crisis and there have been high levels of impunity, corruption and further militarisation. Again, Amnesty has sent to the joint committee our Stop Torture report on Mexico.
In 2014, governments in many parts of the world continued to crack down on NGOs and civil society, which is in part a perverse compliment to the importance of civil society's role. Russia increased its stranglehold with the chilling "foreign agents law", with language resonant of the Cold War. In Egypt, NGOs saw a severe crackdown, with the use of a Mubarak-era law on associations to send a strong message that the government will not tolerate any dissent. Leading human rights organisations had to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council's universal periodic review of Egypt's human rights record because of fear of reprisals against them. It now is known that approximately 41,000 people have been detained in Egypt following the 2013 protests and unrest. I note that Amnesty met the committee yesterday to discuss in particular the case of the Irish citizen, Ibrahim Halawa, and we may wish to discuss that again once we have finished here.
As has happened on many previous occasions, protesters showed courage despite threats and violence directed against them. In Hong Kong, tens of thousands defied official threats and faced down excessive and arbitrary use of force by police, in what became known as the "umbrella movement", exercising their basic rights to freedoms of expression and assembly. Human rights organisations are sometimes accused of being too ambitious in our dreams of creating change but we must remember that extraordinary things are achievable. On 24 December 2014, the international Arms Trade Treaty came into force after the threshold of 50 ratifications was crossed three months earlier. Amnesty International and others had campaigned for the treaty for 20 years. We were repeatedly told that such a treaty was unachievable. The treaty now exists and will prohibit the sale of weapons to those who may use them to commit atrocities. Obviously, implementation on that will be key and it will be crucial that Amnesty continues, as it intends, to play a role in the years to come.
The year 2014 marked 30 years since the adoption of the UN Convention against Torture, again a convention for which Amnesty International campaigned for many years. This anniversary was in one respect a moment to celebrate but also a moment to note that torture remains rife around the world, a reason Amnesty International launched its global Stop Torture campaign this year. I refer to one particularly striking point for us last year when we carried out a survey globally about attitudes to torture. It is an indication of the success of a narrative that seeks to defend the use of torture and oppression in the name of security that approximately 36% of the people to whom we spoke globally believed that torture could be justified in certain circumstances. Our anti-torture message gained special resonance following the publication of a US Senate report in December, which demonstrated a readiness to condone torture in the years after the attacks on the USA on 11 September 2001. It was striking that some of those responsible for criminal acts of torture seemed still to believe they had nothing of which to be ashamed. From Washington to Damascus, from Abuja to Colombo, government leaders have justified horrific human rights violations by talking of the need to keep the country safe. In reality, the opposite is the case. Such violations are one important reason we live in such a dangerous world today. There can be no security without human rights.
We have repeatedly seen that even at times that seem bleak for human rights, and perhaps especially at such times, it is possible to create remarkable change. Our work on our latest Stop Torture campaign has already reaped benefits, as we saw the Philippine Senate’s decision to open an inquiry into widespread police torture based on the findings in our report on torture in that country. As the committee will be aware, that campaign has a focus on the use of torture in four countries, namely, Uzbekistan, Nigeria, Morocco and Mexico. We have supplied the committee with copies of our reports on each of those counties and are happy to continue to provide updates to members on any further developments on the campaign. We also supplied a number of individual cases, separate to that of Ibrahim Halawa on which we had a detailed discussion yesterday, in which we thought the committee might wish to take an interest.