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Statement by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on the current situation in North Africa

GENEVA (4 February 2011) – "Thank you for coming once again. It is unusual for me to hold two press conferences within a week. This is a reflection of the extreme importance I place on what has been going on in North Africa over the past few weeks, and the ramifications for human rights further afield.

First I would like to make a few comments about what is happening in Egypt, before turning to Tunisia and handing over to my high-level team who have just returned from there.

I last spoke to you about Egypt on Tuesday, before vast and peaceful demonstrations and marches were held in Alexandria, Cairo and other cities. The world has been watching as events have unfolded since.

I warned then, and I reiterate again, that governments must listen to their people and put in practice their human rights obligations. Regimes that deprive people of their fundamental rights, that depend on a ruthless security apparatus to impose their will, are bound to fail in the long-term. Stability depends on the development of human rights and democracy.

Tuesday ended on an optimistic note in Egypt. The peaceful demonstrations showed that the chaos, which some were presenting as the only possible alternative to the existing system, was by no means the inevitable outcome.

The violence we all hoped would not happen, did happen on Wednesday when we saw shocking scenes of opposing groups hurling Molotov cocktails, fire bombs and barrages of large stones at each other. Again, there was a noticeable absence of police, and the army failed to separate the two groups, with tragic consequences.

This violence must stop.

Yesterday President Mubarak gaved a television interview in which he said he would like to step down now, but fears the only alternative would be chaos. In the last two days we have seen chaos in central Cairo, and one of the prime drivers of this chaos seems to have been the actions of Egypt’s security and intelligence services.

I urge the authorities to make a strong, clear and unequivocal call on the security and intelligence forces that have protected the authoritarian regime in Egypt for the past 30 years, to stop undermining the security of the state they are supposed to serve.

The Prime Minister has apologized for Wednesday’s violence. I welcome this public recognition – unique in Egypt’s recent history – that the authorities have failed in their duties to protect the people. I urge Egypt to follow through and make the necessary reforms to promote human rights and democracy. There must be an investigation into whether this violence was planned, and if so by whom. This investigation must be undertaken in a transparent and impartial manner.

Over the past two days, we have learned of other extremely disturbing developments, including the physical assaults on, and intimidation and arbitrary detention of, dozens of journalists in what is clearly a blatant attempt to stifle news of what is going on in Egypt.

We have heard of the harassment and arbitrary detention of local and international human rights defenders, including most notably 20 or more people taken yesterday from the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre by military police. Those detained include some of Egypt’s leading activists as well as staff of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International – two of the most respected international human rights organizations. As of the time I left for this briefing, I understand they had still not been freed from military detention.

All journalists and human rights defenders who were arrested for practicing their professions must be released immediately and unconditionally. The authorities must order their security and intelligence forces to cease this extreme harassment at once.

I also urge the authorities to maintain open communications and internet services, protect media premises, and halt all activities aimed at restricting or manipulating the free flow of information, such as the extraordinary hijacking of Vodafone’s system in order to send propaganda text messages.

Egypt must implement its international human rights obligations and prevent further violence. Protestors must be properly protected, including from each other. The security and intelligence forces must be held accountable. Change is coming to Egypt, as it came to Tunisia, but the violence and bloodshed must stop now.

Governments should listen to their people, and start addressing their human rights deficits immediately. Waiting until unrest actually happens is, as we have seen in Tunisia and are now seeing in Egypt, not only perpetuating systems that to a greater or lesser degree transgress international laws and standards, it is also a classic case of acting too little, too late. We now see there is an intense hunger for human rights in the Middle East and North Africa – and of course in other countries in other regions. Governments who ignore these extremely loud and clear warning signals, are doing so at their own peril.

As in Egypt, human rights are at the heart of the political change that has happened in Tunisia. In Tunisia, people expressed loudly and clearly their appetite for a genuine break with the past and for a new era in their countries. Socio-economic hardship coupled with a denial of human rights and justice were the instigators for the widespread protests in both countries.

My team of senior human rights experts has just returned from visiting Tunisia and the information they received confirmed how integral human rights will be for the construction of the future of this country. They have briefed me on their observations and findings.

I was particularly moved by the words of one man whose 28-year-old son died as a result of a gunshot wound to the chest, as he gathered with other young men to protect their neighbourhood from armed militias. Speaking of the death of his son, he told my team that, “there must be sacrifices for there to be change.” His courageous words convey the enormity of the change for ordinary Tunisians and their desire and determination to achieve it despite colossal personal sacrifices and pain. Tunisians are anxious to see the human rights gains of recent weeks reinforced and entrenched in law so that they become a permanent feature of their country.

My team is currently finalizing a written report, based on which I will decide on the best ways in which my Office can provide immediate and more long-term support and assistance to the Tunisian people on a range of human rights issues.

I will now hand over to my team for their direct accounts of what they witnessed in Tunisia over the past week and their impressions."

END

OHCHR Country Page – Tunisia: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/MENARegion/Pages/TNIndex.aspx

OHCHR Country Page – Egypt: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/MENARegion/Pages/EGIndex.aspx

Learn more about the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/AboutUs/Pages/HighCommissioner.aspx

Log on to OHCHR website: http://www.ohchr.org

For more information or interviews, please contact:
Rupert Colville, OHCHR Spokesperson (Tel.: + 41 22 917 9767 / email: rcolville@ohchr.org)
Ravina Shamdasani, Information Officer (Tel.: + 41 22 917 9310 / email: rshamdasani@ohchr.org)