Good afternoon to you all and thank you for coming.
Let me first express my sincere gratitude to the Government for inviting us to conduct an official visit. We have been following the situation in Niger and other countries in the Sahel region very closely. So this has been an important opportunity to discuss the myriad of significant human rights challenges that the people of Niger have been grappling with, directly with the authorities, civil society and other actors.
During my three days in the country, I met with President Mohamed Bazoum, Prime Minister Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou, the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, cabinet members and other high-level officials, as well as traditional chiefs. I met with the President of the National Assembly, members of the Commission nationale des droits humains (CNDH), and a wide range of civil society actors working on issues ranging from climate change to slavery to the rights of women and people with disabilities, migration, justice and more. I also had a meeting with high-level officers of the G5 Sahel joint forces.
The facts and data reveal, starkly, a country with challenges on many fronts: Niger is placed 189 out of 189 countries in the UN’s Human Development Index. More than 10 million people – 40.8 per cent – are living in extreme poverty. Some 3.8 million people need humanitarian assistance, including more than 1.8 million children below five who need nutritional assistance. Climate change has had a particularly harsh impact on the Sahel region, with temperatures reportedly rising 1.5 times faster than the global average, droughts and floods leading to declining agricultural productivity and scarce water resources. To add to these serious developmental and humanitarian challenges, there has been an increasing infiltration of non-State armed groups and other violent actors from neighbouring countries into Niger since 2015, causing a severe deterioration in the security situation and aggravating the dismal humanitarian situation.
At the same time, however, Niger successfully held local, parliamentary and presidential elections late last year and early this year, which resulted in a peaceful, democratic political transition. The high rate of political participation and the conduct of the elections, in spite of the overwhelming challenges outlined above, show that the Nigerien people’s response to the rising insecurity is to come together to secure and defend their rights.
This sense of resolve should be a reservoir of strength for the State and embolden it to confront the challenges head on, with the meaningful participation of partners across the social spectrum. Civil society actors have highlighted the need for a permanent mechanism to regularly consult with them. It is important to ensure the meaningful participation of youth, women, a variety of ethnic and community groups, rural and urban, and marginalized or vulnerable sectors of society – including also people with disabilities.
I understand demonstrations are due to take place tomorrow in Niamey, after the Cour d’appel de Niamey yesterday overturned the authorities’ initial decision not to authorise the protest. Indeed, as the UN Human Rights Committee* has stated, peaceful assemblies create opportunities for the inclusive, participatory and peaceful resolution of differences. In the midst of such a difficult situation, it is particularly important for the Government to facilitate the exercise of the freedoms of expression, opinion and peaceful assembly. I also call on the protesters to exercise their right peacefully.
The path through Niger’s current difficult situation can only be successfully charted with the robust participation of women in decision-making fora. A law imposing quotas on political representation is a welcome step. I note that about one-third of parliamentarians in Niger are women. I hope for continued efforts in this regard.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to withdraw its reservations to the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, and the establishment of a commission to review the civil and children codes, to change the legal age of marriage for girls from 15 to 18. I was particularly heartened by the declaration signed by traditional leaders at a recent symposium with President Bazoum, where they pledged to end child marriage, including by not officiating ceremonies involving girls under 18. I am hopeful that this landmark pledge will have far-reaching impacts on generations of girls and women in Niger. It is high time also that the practice of domestic and sexual slavery, known as wahaya, is brought to an end.
Gender inequality, including lack of education, early marriage and early childbirth, also contributes to an extraordinarily high annual population growth rate of nearly four per cent. This is clearly a rate that is untenable for Niger, given the humanitarian situation and poverty rates I cited earlier.
Traditional leaders are guardians of social cohesion, harmony and religious tolerance. They promote a sense of justice between communities, families and individuals. I was impressed at their sense of responsibility – moving forward the realisation of the human rights of women and girls, particularly their rights to education and sexual and reproductive rights.
In my meeting with officers of the G5 Joint Sahel Force, I was delighted when one uniformed officer made an impassioned plea for the inclusion of more women in the armed forces. In his experience as a military officer – and in my experience as a former defence minister of my country – we have seen the real value-added that women bring in interactions with communities, in mediation, in protection of civilians and on the frontlines.
Regarding the security situation, particularly in the Southwest and East of the country, I share Niger’s deep worries. Last week alone, more than 4,000 people were displaced from their homes in the eastern Diffa Region following attacks and violence allegedly by non-State armed groups or other violent actors. These displacements add to the 280,818 people already internally displaced in the country. It is imperative that all measures be taken to ensure the protection of civilians from the ruthless violence perpetrated by these groups. Non-State armed groups and other violent actors have reportedly been carrying out summary executions, extortion, abductions of boys and girls, pillaging, destruction of facilities providing essential goods and services and other serious violations and abuses of international law. Communities already living in poverty have even their meagre means of subsistence robbed from them.
I appreciate the stated commitment of Nigerien authorities to respect human rights and international humanitarian law during security operations, whether carried out by internal security forces or the G5 Sahel Force. In a country affected by such severe violence and insecurity, trust between security forces and the population is key. To engender such trust, security forces need to operate with full respect for the law, and must be held accountable for any human rights violation. As one of my team here said to me today, we need to ensure that the military are in fact the strongest protectors of human rights. Such an approach will be most effective in countering violent extremism and discouraging radicalization to violence and recruitment by such groups.
I urge the Government to accelerate investigations into emblematic cases where serious human rights violations are alleged to have been committed, regardless of the affiliation of the perpetrators. This is crucial to prevent recurrence of such serious violations.
For example, I am concerned about the lack of judicial progress in the Inatès case. A CNDH investigation in the middle of last year found six mass graves containing 71 bodies – victims of summary executions. The fate of 31 others who disappeared during the attacks that reportedly took place between 27-29 March and 2 April 2020 in Inates, in the Tillabery region, remains unknown. The efforts of the CDNH in monitoring and investigating such allegations are crucial and I hope will receive increased support.
It is reassuring that the Government of Niger has, rightly and importantly, spoken out strongly against the operation of so-called self-defence or vigilante groups. As one high-level official put it, the operation of such ad hoc groups is wrong in principle and in practice. The risk of such groups worsening the situation was made horribly clear by the attacks in Banibangou in Tillabery, where some 84 people were allegedly killed last month, on 2 November. I urge the Government to take measures to discourage the formation of such armed self-defence groups, including by working to reinforce the presence of the State, and by ensuring accountability, in a transparent manner, in relation to the Banibangou incident.
There have also been some encouraging examples of efforts to mediate between communities to dissipate tensions and facilitate voluntary surrender of ex-Boko Haram fighters – efforts that I hope will multiply and prove effective.
Niger’s recent decision to allow individuals and NGOs to take cases directly to the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights is also commendable. It serves to strengthen further the African human rights system towards protection of fundamental rights and duties in the continent.
Niger is also an important location on migration routes across the Sahel and between sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and Europe. I have met with migrants during my visit who shared with me their distress. I have also followed with great concern the disturbing reports of ill-treatment and expulsion of Nigerien and other migrants from neighbouring countries into Niger.
As the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of migrants said following a visit to Niger in 2018, the region needs to adopt comprehensive strategies for safe, orderly and regular migration. The human rights of migrants must be protected throughout the migration cycle, including in the context of efforts to counter trafficking and smuggling. The UN system stands ready to support Niger in revising Law 2015-36 criminalizing the illicit smuggling of migrants to ensure its full compliance with international standards. I commend Niger for its open-door policy for asylum seekers and refugees, in spite of the huge domestic socio-economic challenges.
While the State has the primary obligation to ensure the protection of human rights of its people, on issues with far-reaching human rights impacts – including climate change and migration – there needs to be considered regional and international action and support for Niger. The security threats in Niger are also clearly very much regional in nature and the response needs to be a coordinated one, with the constructive involvement of all the countries in the region, as well as the broader international community.
One refreshing example of such international cooperation is the Great Green Wall – a multi-billion-dollar climate initiative founded by leaders of States from the Sahel and involving 21 African countries as well as numerous other stakeholders. The project envisions widespread reforestation to halt land degradation, with participation of affected communities, including women, and with the leadership of the communities most affected. Enhancing resilience in Sahelian landscapes and livelihoods will undoubtedly strengthen the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights in Niger.
The international community needs to support the country to comprehensively address the security, climate change and developmental and humanitarian situation, to help Niger step up to the daunting challenges it faces.
On 9 December 2019, we formalized an agreement with the Government to establish a UN Human Rights country office in Niger, with a full mandate to offer technical assistance, advice, training, and to conduct monitoring and reporting. As I said to the Government and people of Burkina Faso during my visit there earlier this week, my office will continue to strengthen its work with partners in the country and in the region, along with the rest of the UN presence, on the promotion and protection of human rights for all. We will also reinforce our work in Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad and Mauritania to support the Joint Force of the G5 Sahel in setting up measures to secure compliance with international human rights law and international humanitarian law.
And I will continue to advocate at the highest level, with regional and international actors, for support for Niger’s efforts in ensuring that people are able to live their lives in dignity and safety.