World News in Brief: UN expert welcomes Assange release, more ICC warrants issued over Ukraine, Human Rights Council updates

Human Rights

Mr. Assange had been sought by US lawmakers after massive leaks of classified material via the WikiLeaks platform.

Alice Jill Edwards, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, told UN News that “people should not and should never be extradited to where they may face a torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of punishment”, including penalties that are disproportionate to any alleged crimes that may have been committed.

“Those crimes that were exposed by Mr. Assange need to be taken seriously and properly investigated and prosecuted in the United States,” she said. “Impunity for war crimes and other violations of the laws of war only embolden actors to take matters into their own hands.”

Until today, Mr. Assange had been fighting extradition from prison in the United Kingdom to the US following the 2010 publication of secret military documents and diplomatic communications.

His reported deal involves a guilty plea to one count of violating the US Espionage Act, without serving additional prison time.

Ukraine: ICC issues more arrest warrants against top Russian officials

The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants on Tuesday for two senior Russian officials for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the Russia’s ongoing full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The two men – Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov – held top positions within the Russian Government and military at the time of the reported crimes, which include missile strikes on “numerous” power stations in multiple locations.

Civilian harm

In a statement, the court said that it was reasonable to consider that the harm to civilians and damage from the strikes from October 2022 to March 2023 “would have been clearly excessive to the anticipated military advantage”.

The court also noted that both individuals face allegations that they “caused excessive incidental harm to civilians” and were responsible for “inhumane acts” by either ordering the crimes to happen or through “failure to exercise proper control over the forces under their command”.

UN rights experts: Stop criminalising homelessness and poverty

Independent UN human rights experts on Tuesday called on governments to scrap “cruel and counterproductive” laws that are criminalising homelessness and poverty.

A new study published by two UN Special Rapporteurs – for adequate housing, Balakrishnan Rajagopal, and on extreme poverty and human rights, Olivier De Schutter – documents growing evidence showing that people living in homelessness and poverty are increasingly being penalised simply for doing what is necessary for their basic survival.

This included fines and sanctions for activities such as sleeping, washing, cooking, eating, begging and working on the street.

“Instead of addressing the global affordable housing and inequality crises, which are primarily responsible for homelessness, governments are increasingly turning to outdated and vague vagrancy laws, many of which have their roots in colonial rule, to move people off the streets and make them disappear,” Mr. Rajagopal said.

Symptom of failure

He added that homelessness was a symptom of political and social failure, rooted in policy and institutional factors.

“These laws will not solve homelessness or poverty. They are in direct violation of international human rights and must be urgently repealed,” he said.

The study finds that criminalisation only pushes desperate people into further poverty and homelessness.

“These laws result in a double punishment,” argued Mr. De Schutter. “People are punished first when they are pushed into homelessness and again when they are sanctioned. The [laws] are cruel, counterproductive and a disproportionate response even to any legitimate safety or public health concern presented by homelessness.”

End punitive approach

The experts urged governments to repeal blanket prohibitions against begging and reallocate resources away from police action to address the root causes of poverty and homelessness. Prison sentences for those that can’t afford to pay fines should also be abolished and promote non-custodial measures for minor offences of the homeless, they said.

“Homelessness and poverty are growing because of political choices that are making a decent income and adequate housing a distant dream for millions,” Mr. Rajagopal said. “This must be addressed. Relying on law enforcement will not solve the problem.”

Protecting justice systems amid rising authoritarianism

In another report to the Human Rights Council on Tuesday, the independent UN expert safeguarding the independence of judges and lawyers warned that the role of independent justice systems was coming under increasing attack.

Margaret Satterthwaite said some political actors were seizing on a climate of rising populism and authoritarianism to limit or control justice systems, including through the criminalisation of prosecutors, judges and lawyers.

In her second report to the Council, the Special Rapporteur highlighted how governments were attempting to subvert justice by curbing bar associations, wresting control from courts or attacking those working in the system at all levels.

Fundamental values at stake

“Justice systems promote and protect a fundamental value that undergirds participatory governance: the rule of law,” she said. “This principle insists that all people, even State actors, are subject to the same laws, applied fairly and consistently.

“I call on Member States to do more to revitalise public trust in justice institutions and to defend justice actors and their indispensable role in safeguarding democracy,” she added.

Special Rapporteurs and other UN Human Rights Council-appointed rights experts are independent of any government, receive no salary for their work and serve in their individual capacity.

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