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The 18th Session of the Human Rights Council

The food crisis, the threat of a second global recession, the protest movements in the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere, the Human Rights Council’s investigations of allegations of gross human rights violations in Libya, Syria and Côte d’Ivoire and a renewed call for States to respect human rights in counter terrorism strategies are highlighted in High Commissioner Pillay’s opening address to the 18th session of the Human Rights Council.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights addresses the Human Rights Council © UN Photo/Jean-Marc FerreThe lives of as many as 750,000 people are at risk because of the food crisis in the Horn of Africa, according to Pillay, who told the Council that the emergency is the result of not just environmental factors but also “the failure of governments – individually and collectively – to meet their preventive and remedial human rights obligations”.

A combination of good governance, human rights and the rule of law as well as international cooperation must “be at the heart of any sustainable solution”, Pillay said.

The High Commissioner emphasized the role the Human Rights Council has played in seeking accountability for gross violations of human rights and serious violations of international humanitarian law through the dispatch of international commissions of enquiry to Lybia, Syria and Côte d’Ivoire. The work of the Council’s independent experts in “helping to foster and build this historic human rights momentum” was also commended by the Commissioner.

Pillay told the Council that in Syria the latest death toll in the unrest since mid-March of this year has now reached at least 2,600. “The immediate and long-term protection of civilians in situations of violence must be the focus of our collective efforts,” she said referring also, to the “increasingly violent struggle for power” in Yemen and “emerging reports of brutal violations, including mass summary executions and disappearances” in Libya.

Special mention was made in her address of the situation of migrants in Libya, particularly those from other African countries.

This year’s protest movements in the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere have showed unequivocally, the High Commissioner said, “that economic, social and cultural rights, as well as the right to development matter to people as much as political and civil rights.”

Exploring the effects of the sovereign debt crises, subsequent disruption to global stock markets and risk of a second world-wide recession, Pillay drew the Council’s attention to the concerns of young people who she said, “regard the markets’ convulsions and the faulty economic policies of their governments as a direct threat to their enjoyment of human rights, including the right to work.”

Referring to “the drastic social cuts” and legislative reforms being implemented in response to the economic upheavals in many countries, Pillay said “it is imperative that we examine and address the potential repercussions of economic upheavals on those people who are already living in precarious and marginalized situations…”

Yesterday many nations remembered the victims of the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. In joining the remembrance, Pillay warned against counter terrorism efforts developed by States without appropriate regard for human rights. “This has all too often led to an erosion of rights and fostered a culture of diffidence and discrimination which, in turn, perpetuates cycles of violence and retribution.”

Sri Lanka was one such country according to the High Commissioner. Pillay also cited Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan where she said, “the killing of civilians by opponents, as well as by governmental and international forces engaged in counter-terrorism operations, continues to be a major concern.”

Pillay spoke of the intolerance that exists “below the radar of public attention” – intolerance “in forms less glaring than terrorism, but with consequences just as tragic.”

She reminded delegates that on 22 September the 10th Anniversary of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance will be commemorated, giving world leaders “a high-profile opportunity to galvanize the fight against intolerance”.

Pillay concluded her address with a reminder to States there is a “strong demand for human rights and UN expertise” globally. “I count on the support of Member States,” she said, “to ensure that my Office is properly resourced to meet this growing demand for human rights protection.”

The High Commissioner’s address to the Council marks the start of a three week session, its final scheduled meeting of the year.

The Human Rights Council has 47 Member States and is responsible for promoting and protecting human rights globally. The Council meets three times a year but may convene for special sessions to address specific human rights issues or situations of concern. This year it has met three times in such sessions – in January, to consider the human rights situation in Libya, and in April and again in August to review events in Syria.

12 September 2011