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Human Rights Council opens nineteenth session and startes high-level segment

Council to Hold an Urgent Debate on Situation of Human Rights in Syria on 28 February

MORNING

27 February 2012

The Human Rights Council this morning opened its nineteenth session and started its high-level segment, hearing keynote statements from the President of the Council, the President of the General Assembly, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Federal Councillor and Head of the Federal Department for Foreign Affairs of Switzerland, followed by the high-level segment which was addressed by nine dignitaries.
Laura Lasserre Dupuy, President of the Human Rights Council, said the March session was considered the Council’s main session of the year. She hoped the urgent debate on the human rights and humanitarian situation in Syria on 28 February would proceed so that the international community could provide unanimous condemnation of the violence and wider human rights violations taking place in this country.

Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, President of the United Nations General Assembly, said that the enhanced capacity of the Human Rights Council to respond to urgent or emerging situations was particularly evident in the case of Syria. The Syrian crisis was of the highest concern in a number of countries. The General Assembly had expressed concern about the ongoing violence in Syria and had appointed Mr. Kofi Annan as joint special envoy to Syria for the United Nations and League of Arab States.

Navi Pillay, High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that a prime achievement of the Human Rights Council was the Universal Periodic Review which was a unique mechanism which had engaged the interest of many including those at the grass-roots and had led to positive legislative and policy changes. Despite this progress, there was much the Human Rights Council should do to meet its responsibility to ensure that all people in all nations fully enjoyed their human rights.

Didier Burkhalter, Federal Councillor and Head of the Federal Department for Foreign Affairs of Switzerland, said the Human Rights Council had proven its value by reacting to grave human rights violations and dealing with current affairs even when of a difficult or delicate nature. The international community had to react if a State did not fulfill its human rights obligations, said Mr. Burkhalter, condemning in the strongest possible terms all human rights violations committed in Syria.

Opening the High-level Segment, Angelino Garzon, Vice-President of Colombia, said that 2012 brought before the Human Rights Council new challenges that needed to be addressed decisively. Colombia was particularly interested in the human rights and humanitarian situation in Syria; strengthening of treaty bodies to make them more focused on constructive cooperation with States; combating discrimination against women in law and practice; maternal mortality and human rights; and the elimination of racial discrimination.
Other dignitaries which addressed the Council in the High-level Segment were Mohamed Shiaa Al-Sudani, Minister for Human Rights of Iraq; Maria Benvinda Levi, Minister of Justice of Mozambique; Luis Almagro, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Uruguay; Khaled Bin Mohammad Al-Attiyah, Minister of State and Foreign Affairs of Qatar; Jeremy Browne, Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom; Abdou Diouf, Secretary-General of Organisation internationale de la Francophonie; Margarita Zavala, First Lady of Mexico and President of the National System for the Family; and Abdelwahad Radi, President of the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
At the end of the meeting, the President of the Council asked if there was agreement to hold the urgent debate on the situation of human rights in Syria on 28 February. The Russian Federation said it would not object to holding the special meeting, but stressed that the discussion should not result in a written document as that would not be useful to resolving the situation in Syria. Cuba said that it hoped that the special meeting would not be used as a pretext to promote military action in the country against the territorial sovereignty of the Syrian nation. The President of the Council said the meeting on Syria would be held on 28 February.
The Council today is holding a full day of meetings from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. At 1:15 p.m., it suspended the High-level Segment to hold a panel discussion on Human Rights through Sports and the Olympic Ideal. It will continue with its High-level segment at 2:30 p.m.
Keynote Statements

LAURA LASSERRE DUPUY, President of the Human Rights Council, said the March session was considered the Council’s main session of the year. This year there would be more than 80 high-level representatives. The President said she would inform the Council of the discussions she had had with the expanded Bureau on 24 February, based on the letter she received on 22 February requesting an urgent debate in light of the escalating grave human rights violations and the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Syria. The Bureau had reflected carefully on the most appropriate modalities, in line with the mandate and rules of procedure of the Council, in order to allow a constructive debate to take place. The Bureau suggested the Council convene an urgent debate on the human rights and humanitarian situation in Syria on 28 February. The President hoped the debate would proceed so that the international community could provide unanimous condemnation of the violence and wider human rights violations taking place in Syria. The humanitarian situation was critical. The President hoped the Syrian authorities would provide a positive response such that the international community could address the human rights violations and the wider humanitarian situation taking place.

NASSIR ABDULAZIZ AL-NASSER, President of the United Nations General Assembly, said that at this moment in world history, the human rights work of the United Nations was as critical and pivotal as it had ever been. A key player in this work was the Human Rights Council which, with the recent review, had enhanced its capacity to respond to urgent or emerging situations. This was particularly evident in the case of Syria, on which the Council had held three special sessions and, tomorrow, would hold an urgent debate. The Syrian crisis was of the highest concern in a number of countries, and in the General Assembly which, upon hearing the High Commissioner for Human Rights, on the perpetrated violations against Syrian civilians, expressed concern about the ongoing violence in Syria and the need to end the killings and all human rights violations. The 16 February resolution of the General Assembly had appointed Kofi Annan as joint special envoy to Syria for the United Nations and League of Arab States. The situation in the Occupied Arab Territories was another human rights issue that had occupied the conscious of mankind for more than six decades, said Mr. Al-Nasser, adding that efforts should be accelerated to ensure that the Palestinian people freely realized their right to self-determination, notably by establishing their independent state, and ensuring freedom and dignity for the Syrian people in the Occupied Syrian Golan.

NAVI PILLAY, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that the last three and a half years had been marked by public demands of people to live a life of dignity and enjoyment of human rights. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had responded to the calls of those claiming the full enjoyment of their human rights through fact-finding missions and needs-assessments, human rights advocacy, good offices activities and technical projects. Ms. Pillay said she was proud that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had 58 human rights field presences on all continents. These human rights presences were critical for monitoring and providing targeted technical assistance to Governments and other partners in relation to human rights issues. The impact of these presences had been profoundly intensified by people who had spread the message of human rights, including through social media, public gatherings or silent opposition.

A prime achievement of the Human Rights Council was the Universal Periodic Review whose first cycle would be completed during this session. Underpinned by the principles of universality, equality and cooperation, the Universal Periodic Review was a unique mechanism which had engaged the interest of many including those at the grass-roots and had led to positive legislative and policy changes. The second cycle, during which implementation by States of their peers’ recommendations would be assessed would test the mechanism’s value and credibility. Between December 2010 and the end of 2011, the Human Rights Council had convened five special sessions on country situations and for the first time had recommended suspension of the membership of one of its members. The Council had also created commissions of inquiry, fact-finding missions and country-specific special procedures to address country situations and convened thematic panels on important issues and interactive dialogues which had contributed to the development of international law in respect of pressing themes.

Despite this progress, the High Commissioner said there was much the Human Rights Council should do to meet its responsibility to ensure that all people in all nations fully enjoyed their human rights. The Council must be even-handed in its approach: it was commendable that it had addressed some situations of serious human rights violations but there were others which merited its urgent consideration. The Council must improve in following up its recommendations and other actions. Importantly, the Council had not developed ways to tackle States, including among its members, which had failed to cooperate with the Council, its subsidiary mechanisms, other United Nations bodies and with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Ms. Pillay called on the Council to urgently address these challenges so that it would truly live up to its role of international human rights defender.

DIDIER BURKHALTER, Federal Councillor and Head of the Federal Department for Foreign Affairs of Switzerland, said the Human Rights Council was fulfilling its essential role: to protect the individual. The Council had proven its value by reacting to grave human rights violations and dealing with current affairs even when of a difficult or delicate nature. At the nineteenth session the Council would discuss freedom of expression on the internet, discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation as well as the human rights situation in Syria. The international community had to react if a State did not fulfil its human rights obligations. Despite three special sessions of the Human Rights Council, the efforts of the Arab League and the condemnation by the General Assembly of human rights violations, the violence in Syria had not ceased. Switzerland condemned in the strongest possible terms all human rights violations committed in Syria and called on the Syrian authorities to immediately put an end to the use of violence and repression against the civilian population and to take measures to hold those responsible accountable. Since it joined the United Nations 10 years ago, Switzerland had worked to reinforce the United Nations system so it was able to respond adequately to human rights violations. Improving the implementation of international humanitarian law was, for Switzerland, one of the greatest challenges, if the situation of victims of armed conflicts was to be improved. Switzerland had always defended a vision of the world in which human rights were not only a universal right but were also applied universally. Switzerland was pleased to support a cross-regional initiative to contribute to a better understanding of the relationship between human rights and the environment. The recent wave of peaceful demonstrations was deeper than it appeared and Switzerland proposed to continue the dialogue on human rights in the context of peaceful demonstrations with the Council, with the purpose of reaching a better understanding of the phenomenon and enhancing the protection of human rights in the future.

High-level Segment

ANGELINO GARZON, Vice-President of Colombia, said that last year Colombia had moved to set up a national human rights and international humanitarian law system which would consolidate policies of the State to ensure an integrated response to multiple challenges to human rights in the country. 2012 brought before the Human Rights Council new challenges that needed to be addressed decisively. Colombia was particularly interested in the human rights and humanitarian situation in Syria; strengthening of treaty bodies to make them more focused on constructive cooperation with States; combating discrimination against women in law and practice; maternal mortality and human rights; and elimination of racial discrimination. The most pressing and urgent issue to address was that of child labour; more than 250 million children worldwide were involved in labour, according to the International Labour Organization and more than 200,000 died every year. This was a scandal, concluded Mr. Garzon, and he invited the Human Rights Council to provide leadership in this issue in cooperation with other United Nations bodies and agencies and with regional bodies.

MOHAMMED SHIYA AL-SUDANI, Minister of Human Rights of Iraq, said the Government of Iraq, after the complete withdrawal of foreign troops, had regained full sovereignty and was exerting tremendous efforts to actively support the promotion of human rights. The position of Iraq was clear in supporting the revolutions of people demanding reforms and human rights while at the same time urging States to respect sovereignty and territorial unity. Since 2003, Iraq had worked to build a strong human rights system that stemmed from the Iraqi constitution and its obligations under international treaties and conventions. A National Action Plan for Human Rights in Iraq was prepared on the basis of the recommendations of Iraq’s Universal Periodic Review in 2010. The Government had accelerated the adoption of a large number of draft laws to promote human rights while launching strategic policies for poverty alleviation, the advancement of women, the elimination of violence against women and the promotion of employment. The biggest challenge facing human rights in Iraq was terrorism which affected innocent and unarmed civilians every day. The Government had signed with the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq an official memorandum to end the file of members of the Mujahedi Khalq Organization peacefully and voluntarily according to international standards of human rights.

MARIA BENVIDA LEVI, Minister of Justice of Mozambique, said the current challenge was to ensure that all possible venues were explored in order to uphold human rights values and freedoms amid global threats and challenges. Setting the perspective of human rights with respect to a wide range of issues was the overriding concern of all States. One of the Council’s remarkable achievements in the area of its institutional architecture was the establishment of the Universal Periodic Review mechanism. It allowed all countries to exchange views, evaluate achievements and assess shortcomings in promoting the universality, interdependence, indivisibility and interrelatedness of all human rights. Mozambique successfully underwent its Universal Periodic Review in 2011 and was pleased to have been accorded an opportunity to engage in a fruitful interactive dialogue. The Government had already designed and approved the Universal Periodic Review Plan of Action and envisaged the required course of action for the implementation of the recommendations. Nevertheless, Mozambique was conscious of the challenges ahead and was convinced that Mozambique could count on assistance and cooperation from the international community and the United Nations.

LUIS ALMAGRO, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Uruguay, expressed solidarity with all victims of human rights violations in Syria, and concern about the situation of human rights in Libya and the situation of any victim of torture, or person unfairly deprived of their liberty. Human rights were a Government priority in Uruguay and at the heart of public policy. Reparations for victims of human rights violations by the former military dictatorship were a priority. On 28 February, Uruguay would sign the third Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on a communications procedure. Two weeks ago Uruguay had welcomed the Special Rapporteur on drinking water and sanitation, which was a human right recognised in the constitution of Uruguay, while the Special Rapporteur on torture had been invited to visit Uruguay in the second half of 2012. The role of the High Commissioner for Human Rights as an expert and independent voice was a key tool that provided protection to millions. Uruguay commended new human rights bodies, such as the Committee on Disappeared Persons, but said that the international community needed better instruments to prevent and punish atrocious human rights violations and crimes against humanity still suffered by thousands of persons every day. The international community owed it to future generations to make a commitment to those people, and it must work together in order to address challenges together.

KHALED BIN MOHAMMAD AL-ATTIYAH, Minister of State and Foreign Affairs of Qatar, said that the promotion and protection of human rights was a cornerstone of the reform in Qatar through constitutional and legislative reform and cooperation with treaty bodies. Qatar’s National Vision 2030 encompassed a comprehensive vision of development and identified important action for the promotion and protection of human rights, including effective women’s empowerment in all fields. The international community still faced major challenges due to the worsening impact of racist practices, racial discrimination and acts of violence. Combating this problem required concerted efforts by the international community to take bold steps at banning religious hatred and criminalizing all methods of apartheid and policies based on racial hatred. The occupied Palestinian territories were still witness to the suffering of the Palestinian people both in Gaza and in the West Bank, with the continuing killing, destruction and confiscation of land by the occupying authorities. Qatar had followed with deep sadness and anger the escalating military operations in Syria, the killing of civilians and the increasing violence and called for respect of human rights and a decent life for Syrian citizens.

JEREMY BROWNE, Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom, said the Commission of Inquiry mandated by the Human Rights Council had concluded that crimes against humanity had been committed by Syrian forces. The United Kingdom urged Council members to pass a resolution extending the Commission’s mandate. The British Government strongly supported the League of Arab States’ call for the Syrian Government to cease all violence and protect its population. The United Kingdom called on all parties in Syria to end the violence immediately and to respect human rights standards. The Syrian authorities had to allow unhindered, neutral and impartial access for humanitarian organizations. The Syrian regime had to respect legitimate aspirations for freedom and dignity and the international community should do its utmost to help the Syrian people realise these aspirations. The United Kingdom looked forward to discussing the other issues that would be covered in the nineteenth session of the Council, including the human rights situation in Iran, Burma, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Sri Lanka and others. The right of expression was fundamental to a healthy civil society; journalists, bloggers and individuals had to be allowed to express themselves freely and safely online as they did offline, in accordance with international human rights standards.

ABDOU DIOUF, Secretary-General of the International Organization of Francophonie, expressed a special thought to the women, men and children in Syria who, right now, were seeing their rights violated, their dignity trampled underfoot and their flesh severely battered. It was very important to deliver the message of a community of 75 States that was united by the French language and values, and was actively committed to building democracy and promoting human rights. For over a year the world had seen a fantastic popular ground-swell in favour of democracy, human rights and freedoms which had shaken the Arab World. The International Organization of Francophonie paid tribute to the persons who had made enormous sacrifices, shown immense bravery, and demonstrated day in and day out so that no person or Government could quash the fundamental freedoms which were the right of every human being. In all too many countries, including some of members of the International Organization of Francophonie, the aspirations of men and women remained unsatisfied. All Francophone States were urged to sign and ratify all United Nations human rights treaties, in particular the new Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Finally, Mr. Diouf said, an essential matter for the organization was the presence of the French language, French speakers and the promotion of multilingualism, not just in the Human Rights Council but across the United Nations system. The organization was not fighting for a language, but for multilingualism and diversity.

MARGARITA ZAVALA, First Lady of Mexico and President of the National System for the Family, expressed Mexico’s unswerving commitment to the Human Rights Council and the treaty bodies mechanism. The work done on the promotion and protection of human rights in Mexico, particularly for vulnerable groups, was a step in the right direction. At this session of the Council, Mexico would, in partnership with Turkey, propose a right to registration at birth in order to promote the enjoyment of other rights such as access to education or justice for example. Mexico had started constitutional reform last year in June, which presented the greatest widening of the space for the promotion and protection of human rights in this country. Boys and girls, particularly those affected by migration, demanded special attention of authorities, said Ms. Zavala, and that was why Mexico had been promoting since 2007 a strategy to provide protection and support to unaccompanied migrant minors. Mexico had organized a National Day of Migration to raise awareness about the phenomenon and in May 2011 had published a law on migration which set out the human rights of migrants and provided a framework for their protection. Another priority for Mexico was the protection and support for children involved with organized crime and in February Mexico had signed an agreement to provide inter-institutional support to those children and adolescents.

ABDELWAHAD RADI, President of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, said the wave of revolutionary and popular protests showed to what extent people were determined to fight against despotism and tyranny. The Inter-Parliamentary Union renewed its call to stop the violence taking place and ensure legitimate demands were met. Over the past year the Inter-Parliamentary Union had launched an ambitious strategy to reinforce its capacity to promote democracy and aid parliaments to fulfil their duties, particularly with respect to human rights. In Egypt and Tunisia, the organization had provided support to processes of democratisation and the functioning of new parliamentary institutions. Parliaments were at the heart of States’ efforts to safeguard human rights and this should guide the Human Rights Council’s efforts when working on the ground. The great majority of parliaments were not familiar with the Universal Periodic Review. The Inter-Parliamentary Union was working to remedy this, because once parliaments were knowledgeable about the mechanism, they were more likely to be involved.

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For use of the information media; not an official record