Syrian civilians must be protected amid ISIL executions and airstrikes: Bachelet

UN Photo/Laura Jarriel Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, speaks to the press at UN Headquarters in New York.

This article is brought to you in association with the United Nations.

Reports that violent extremists in Syria have executed civilians in the east of the war-torn country have been condemned by the UN’s top rights official, Michelle Bachelet.

Speaking to journalists in Geneva on Wednesday, the High Commissioner for Human Rights warned that an “at least 7,000” people in Deir-Ez-Zor province were trapped, amid efforts to dislodge ISIL from one of their last strongholds in Syria.

“These civilians are of course frightened and stuck between the intensifications of the airstrikes and bombardments against ISIL on one hand, and also being prevented from leaving the areas under ISIL’s control on the other hand,” Ms. Bachelet said. “We have also reports of ISIL executing civilians perceived as cooperating with the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) or with other parties to the conflict.”

In an appeal to the extremists, the High Commissioner urged them to remove all military personnel and objects from civilian areas, in line with international law.

She also reminded all parties to the conflict – “including all States conducting operations against ISIL” – that they had an obligation under humanitarian international law to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure at all times.

Historic rights declaration, truly ‘universal’

Ms. Bachelet’s comments come five days from the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an “aspirational treatise” whose principles “have permeated virtually every area of international law” since it was drawn up, she said.

Dismissing suggestions that the text’s 30 Articles reflected a predominantly western view of human rights, Ms Bachelet insisted on its universality, taking the example of mothers everywhere: “It doesn’t matter from which region of the world she lives, which ethnic group she pertains, which religion she has or culture she has,” she said, every mother wants her “child to be born adequately, to have food, to be warm when it’s cold.”

“So I believe it’s universal, if you read all the articles, all of them speak about what people really want for their lives.”

While such modern-day challenges such as artificial intelligence and climate change are not mentioned in the Universal Declaration, “its precepts are so fundamental that they can be applied to every new dilemma”, the High Commissioner insisted.

Noting the fact that the document is also “remarkably lacking in sexist language”, Ms. Bachelet explained that women had played a prominent role in the drafting process – not just Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the drafting committee, but also women from Denmark, Pakistan, Eastern Europe and Latin America.

Their contribution is reflected in the final document, which aside from the two references to “himself and his family”, refers to “everyone”, “all” or “no one” throughout.

The Universal Declaration also provides protection for specific minority groups, such as those with disabilities and the LGBTI community, Ms. Bachelet continued, quoting from it to highlight how everyone is entitled to all the freedoms it contains “without distinction of any kind such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”.

Seventy years after its adoption, the work of the Universal Declaration in encouraging States to provide opportunities for everyone and protecting them “is far from over”, Ms. Bachelet warned.

She called on world leaders to “be responsible for what they say and lead by example”, amid a rise in xenophobia and hate speech, declaring herself “disappointed” by the announced withdrawal by a number of countries from the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.

The non-binding treaty is due to be adopted in Morocco next week.

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