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Human Rights Day: Statement of Ms. Navanethem Pillay United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

Geneva, 10 December 2010

Excellencies,
Colleagues and Friends,

I am delighted to welcome you to this year’s celebration of Human Rights Day. 

As you know, this day marks the adoption by the General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which enshrined the principles of the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.   The Universal Declaration set the path leading to a world where the strong are held accountable and the vulnerable are protected.  Human rights defenders have struggled to translate the principles of the Universal Declaration into reality for all.

That reality is achievable if we all join these brave advocates and make the fight against discrimination our own priority.  Experience has shown us that when others are oppressed or excluded, our freedoms and prosperity rest on shaky ground.  That is why I call on all of us everywhere to speak up against discrimination and stand by human rights defenders today and in the years to come.

Some defenders have become icons.  We all know Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela.  Others may be less famous, but not less determined and courageous.

Many defenders move in volatile and dangerous environments.  In numerous parts of the world, they are harassed, arbitrarily arrested, detained incommunicado and killed.  Some of those killed – like Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, murdered in 2006, and Floribert Chebeya Bahizire, who was found dead earlier this year – are remembered and revered. But many of those who pay the ultimate price for their advocacy remain unknown to the wider world.   This is the case of the Guatemalan activist Emilia Quan, who was kidnapped and then killed three days ago. 

Despite grave risks, human rights defenders everywhere continue to champion the vision of the Universal Declaration through their ideas and deeds.  They know that silence and inaction embolden those who violate human rights. 

Friends and Colleagues,

Discrimination is unacceptable.  Today, I will highlight some of its manifestations.

  • Discrimination in law and practice makes women, over half of the world’s population, second-class citizens and targets of violence. 
  • Indigenous peoples are often considered to be unwanted guests in their own ancestral lands; while minorities and others live in fear of racially-motivated attacks and sometimes persecution.  
  • Men and women with disabilities are frequently invisible when it comes to human rights. 
  • Migrant workers are treated as outsiders in the communities where they live and work.  
  • Human rights violations and violence often affect people because of their sexual orientation.
  • Older persons are at high risk of discrimination and the human rights violations this implies.

Human rights defenders know that these challenges must be addressed with the proper mix of measures and interventions, including public education, which, in law and in practice, empower those at risk and ensure their meaningful participation. From this perspective, let me now discuss some positive results and the road ahead.

Discrimination against women entrenches unequal pay for women for equal work.  In many countries, laws restrict women’s access to financial independence, discriminating against them in matters of employment, property and inheritance.  Girls make up 70% of the estimated 70-100 million children who do not go to school. Violence against women is a weapon of domination in the home, the community and the State and is a weapon of war in armed conflict. 

The United Nations has provided a space which has nurtured women’s solidarity and their awareness of their human rights. Women defenders have been at the forefront of efforts to create a solid international human rights framework for gender equality.  They have high expectations of UN Women, the new agency created to coordinate UN action on gender issues.  UN Women is appropriately led by the former President of Chile Michelle Bachelet who participated  in OHCHR’s Human Rights Day celebration in New York.

Discrimination against indigenous people is widespread, but determined human rights defenders can and do make a great difference.  For example, in India, the Dongria Kondh tribe and their advocates successfully defended their homeland against the construction of a mine that would have damaged their natural habitat and environment irreparably.  Their action has very significant consequences for the more than 80 million tribal people living in the country, and as a result the Prime Minister of India has created a new committee for tribal rights which will review and guide all related policies.

Discrimination on the basis of race affects millions of people in all regions of the world and is profoundly damaging.  It may be so engrained and institutionalized that it goes unreported.  But the victims certainly do know the effects of intolerance.  With the April 2009 review conference on racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, and the conference outcome, momentum to address these scourges has grown.

Civil society’s activism continues to constitute the connective tissue between international initiatives and the reality on the ground.  Human rights advocates raise their voices courageously against racism and those who advocate and support racial hatred are increasingly conscious of the condemnation they inspire.

Last year, the General Assembly proclaimed that 2011 would be the International Year for People of African Descent which will be officially launched today by the Secretary-General.  I invite all of you to do your utmost throughout the year to ensure that it is the success that people of African descent deserve to combat discrimination against them and help rectify a historic shame.

All marginalized minorities in all parts of the world, including the Roma of Europe, should take comfort from these examples and the fact that advocacy ultimately pays off even though it may encounter well-entrenched opposition in the short-term.

Human rights defenders were undeterred by prejudice and resistance as they sought to affirm the long-neglected rights of the estimated 470-670 million of people with disabilities in the world.  They reaped the rewards of their relentless efforts when, in May 2008, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol entered into force. This owed much to the creativity and advocacy of civil society organizations, in particular disabled persons organizations, which ensured that these instruments represented a paradigm shift from a welfare conception to a human rights approach.

Persons with disabilities have emphasized that there should be ‘nothing about us without us,’ and this is crucial in other contexts.

Participation of migrants is also key to tackling global migration one of the pre-eminent challenges or our time.  While advocacy on behalf of settled migrant communities has become prominent, defenders of the rights of irregular, undocumented migrants need to be more visible and vocal.  Champions are needed because irregular migrants may be understandably unwilling to speak up for their rights and face the risk of retribution.  I sought to encourage advocacy on behalf of irregular migrants who are at high risk of discrimination, exploitation and abuse, when I addressed the Global Forum on Migration in Mexico last month. 

Migrant inflows represent a challenge for countries that have chronic problems of poverty and scarcity of resources, as well as during times of economic crisis. But each State must comply with its human rights obligations. The empowerment of migrants and the promotion and protection of their human rights depend on pro-active State policies.  These include raising public awareness of the benefits that migration brings both to sending and receiving countries, and the dangers that stereotyping and prejudice pose to peaceful and productive co-existence.

Awareness-raising is also essential in the promotion and protection of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.  Experience in those countries that have removed criminal penalties in the context of sexual orientation has made clear that educational initiatives must complement and must be pursued together with legislative measures in order to effectively eradicate the roots of homophobia.  The Universal Declaration demands equality for all our fellow human beings, regardless of their sexual orientation or their gender identity.

Stigma, neglect and even abuse are also directed against the elderly.  The world’s population is now as old as it has ever been.  One in every ten persons alive today is aged 60 or more; by 2050, that figure will rise to one in five.  The implications of this reality are profound. Millions of older persons face unequal treatment, isolation, chronic poverty, unemployment, violence and abuse. Their representation in social mechanisms and policy making is limited. Older women are among those most at risk, particularly as most are widows. Many are homeless and many are prevented from inheriting from their husbands, parents or children.  Our comprehensive framework of human rights treaties should be used more effectively to engineer the fundamental policy changes which must be made to accommodate this turnaround in the global population profile and guarantee older persons the full enjoyment of their human rights.  I welcome the General Assembly’s establishment last month of an open-ended working group to strengthen the protection of human rights of older persons.

Dear Colleagues,

Advocacy stems both from necessity and empathy, that is, the ability to identify with somebody else’s conditions and to feel them as one’s own.  It is such empathy, regardless of distance in time or space or custom, and the common notion that all human beings are entitled to dignity and respect that have built the human rights movement and underpinned its progress.  Each day the human rights movement wins more supporters, but we must not be complacent.

Countless defenders are behind bars or are forced to work within the confines of repressive laws. Some have been executed or live in exile.

The last decades have seen the emergence of new economic and political powers which have lifted millions out of poverty and can now contribute a better balance to international governance.  Their increasing weight and global influence also entail responsibilities and accountability both at the national level and internationally.

Human rights defenders play a crucial role in ensuring that policies respectful of human rights are put in place as nations pursue their economic and political goals.  Yet, despite the benefits they bring to society, in some parts of the world they are facing violations of their rights, especially freedom of speech.

I call on Governments to acknowledge that criticism is not a crime and to respect the human rights and work of defenders. I have called for and will continue to urge the release of all prisoners of conscience.

I also note with alarm that pressure on human rights defenders, the media and civil society organizations, often increases in the course of electoral processes.  For elections to be free and fair there must be an environment conducive to open debate and full participation by all.  Protection for those at risk of exclusion, intimidation and attacks must be ensured.   

Before turning over the floor to our distinguished panellists, I have the great pleasure of introducing a brief video address by the pre-eminent pro-democracy leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.  Suu Kyi was released last month after more than seven years under house arrest.  She endured her ordeal with determination and grace.  She prevailed as will, I am sure, the cause of all the defenders whose freedom and ability to work is now being curtailed.  History is on the side of human rights.

Thank you.