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High Commissioner presents update on her office's activities at opening of twentieth session of Human Rights Council

MORNING

18 June 2012

Council Hears from Minister of Foreign Affairs of Finland and Minister of Education and Culture of Uruguay

The Human Rights Council this morning opened its twentieth regular session, hearing an address by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in which she updated the Council on her Office’s activities and then holding a general debate on the annual report of the High Commissioner and reports of her Office and the Secretary-General.

Navi Pillay, High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged the international community to overcome divisions in order to end the violence and human rights violations in Syria, as they might amount to crimes against humanity. The High Commissioner reiterated her appeal to Member States to integrate key human rights considerations into the Rio+20 Outcome Document, to ensure full coherence between efforts to advance the green economy, and their human rights obligations, including the right to development. The persistence of poverty and wide disparities across regions and within countries continued to present a formidable human rights challenge, said Ms. Pillay and detailed the work of her Office on the human rights dimension of migration, accountability and rule of law, discrimination, rights of women, indigenous peoples, minorities, persons with disabilities and human rights in relation to the United Nations peace and security agenda.

Also in opening remarks, Laura Lasserre Dupuy, President of the Human Rights Council, said the programme of the twentieth session included three panels, general debates and discussions on reports by 18 Special Procedures. The Human Rights Council would also appoint the Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to the enjoyment of a safe, clean and healthy and sustainable environment towards the end of the session.

Erkki Tuomioja, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Finland, and Ricardo Ehrlich, Minister of Education and Culture of Uruguay, addressed the Council at the end of the opening meeting.

In the general debate on the annual report of the High Commissioner and reports of her Office and the Secretary-General, speakers welcomed the re-appointment of the High Commissioner for a second term and supported her participation in the Rio+20 Conference. The outcomes of this United Nations Conference must be sensitive to the vulnerabilities faced by indigenous peoples, minorities, migrants, persons living in poverty, persons with disabilities, the elderly and children. The number of civilians wounded and killed in El Houleh and other locations in Syria was appalling. The deliberate and indiscriminate targeting of civilians must immediately stop and the case should be considered for referral to the International Criminal Court. Countries also expressed concern regarding findings in the report on the human rights situation in Belarus, as well as the situation in Eritrea, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and in the Sahel region. Many speakers reiterated their support for the strengthening of the treaty body system and noted the responsibility of States to respond to challenges by making the system more effective, coherent and better resourced.

Speaking in the general debate were Egypt on behalf of the Non Aligned Movement, Senegal on behalf of the African Group, Denmark on behalf of the European Union, Pakistan on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Jordan on behalf of the Arab Group, Poland, Italy, Russian Federation, Norway, Spain, Qatar, Czech Republic, Libya, Moldova, Angola, Kyrgyzstan, China, Romania, United States, Indonesia, Chile, Peru, Cuba, Thailand, Switzerland and Maldives.

The Council will resume its work at 3 p.m. this afternoon to continue the general debate.

Opening Statements

LAURA LASSERRE DUPUY, President of the Human Rights Council, welcomed the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and said that later this morning two dignitaries from Finland and Uruguay would address the Council. The programme of this session included three panels, general debates and discussions on reports by 18 Special Procedures. The Human Rights Council would also appoint the Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to the enjoyment of a safe, clean and healthy and sustainable environment towards the end of the session.

The Human Rights Council then adopted its programme of work for the twentieth regular session.

NAVI PILLAY, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the situation in Syria continued to deteriorate and the United Nations Support Mission faced significant challenges. Ms. Pillay urged the international community to overcome divisions in order to end the violence and human rights violations in Syria, as they might amount to crimes against humanity. Ms. Pillay reiterated her appeal to Member States to integrate key human rights considerations into the Rio+20 Outcome Document, to ensure full coherence between efforts to advance the green economy, and their human rights obligations, including the right to development. The Office of the High Commissioner had continued to play a leading role in strengthening system-wide efforts to integrate human rights in United Nations operational activities for development and strove to integrate human rights in humanitarian action. Among the thematic priorities of the Office, Ms. Pillay emphasised the human rights dimension of migration, which increased amidst worldwide financial and economic crises. The persistence of poverty and wide disparities across regions and within countries continued to present a formidable human rights challenge. Ms. Pillay also detailed the work of her Office on the areas of accountability and the rule of law, discrimination, minority rights, the rights of indigenous peoples, women’s rights, the rights of persons with disability, and human rights in relation to the United Nations peace and security agenda.

The deteriorating human rights situation in Mali since the recent coup had led to massive displacement, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in the region. The human rights situation in Eritrea and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea remained of serious concern. Ms. Pillay also expressed concern about the political crisis in Nepal, where the local Office of the High Commissioner had been closed. The dramatic increase in violence against journalists in several countries in Latin America over the past months was disturbing. Ms. Pillay also expressed concern about the restriction of freedom of expression and assembly for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons and groups in Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova, and the Russian Federation; and by the recent legislative changes in Hungary concerning the independence of the judiciary and freedom of the media. Ms. Pillay reported on the missions conducted by herself and the Deputy High Commissioner to Guatemala, Barbados, South Sudan, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Tunisia, Chad, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Regarding her visit to Pakistan, Ms. Pillay expressed serious concern over the continuing use of armed drones for targeted attacks. It was unclear that all persons targeted were combatants or directly participating in hostilities, and Ms. Pillay urged States to ensure compliance with international law, to conduct investigations, and to provide victims with effective remedies.

Ms. Pillay noted the high-level of participation in the Universal Periodic Review Working Group and was confident that States would continue to rise to the challenge of improving the human rights situation. Ms. Pillay continued to work to strengthen the United Nations human rights treaty body system in light of its rapid growth, and to this end a report would be made available on 22 June. The continued expansion of the Special Procedures system, which had carried out 82 visits in 2011, attested to its relevance. Ms. Pillay condemned continued reprisals against persons who had collaborated with the United Nations and human rights mechanisms and was encouraged by the increasing prominence of human rights in public discourse. The Office of the High Commissioner was ready to meet the challenges identified by the Council and to implement its mandates. Ms. Pillay reiterated the importance of Member States’ commitment to ensure their non-selective support and the resources to enable the work of the Office.

General Debate on the Annual Report of the High Commissioner and Reports of her Office and the Secretary-General

Egypt, speaking on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, emphasized the need to increase the proportion of United Nations regular budget funding in the overall funding of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and to urgently increase the proportion of un-earmarked contributions. The strengthening of the treaty body system was an accomplishment for human rights. The Non-Aligned Movement supported the participation of the High Commissioner in the Rio+20 Conference, as well as the priority allocated to the rights of migrants, and her efforts to advocate a human rights approach to migration.

Senegal, speaking on behalf of the African Group, expressed concern about the general wave of racist and xenophobic acts on a daily basis characterized by extraordinary and indistinct violence. The international community and States monitoring violations could not afford to remain silent. The African Group renewed its appeal for the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. It reiterated its appeal for the granting of more resources to the High Commissioner’s Office and diverse mechanisms for the preservation and protection of human rights.

Denmark, speaking on behalf of the European Union, reiterated the commitment of the European Union in the fight against discrimination. The European Union also expressed concern regarding findings in the report on the human rights situation in Belarus, as well as the situation in Eritrea, and supported the call for Eritrea to cooperate with human rights mechanisms. The European Union was appalled by the number of civilians wounded and killed in El Houleh and other locations in Syria. The deliberate and indiscriminate targeting of civilians must immediately stop and the case should be considered for referral to the International Criminal Court.

Pakistan, on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, welcomed the upcoming participation of the High Commissioner in the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro and agreed that its outcomes must be sensitive to the vulnerabilities faced by indigenous peoples, minorities, migrants, persons living in poverty, persons with disabilities, the elderly and children. The ongoing economic and financial crises continued to pose serious challenges for vulnerable segments of the society. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation agreed with the High Commissioner that the real objective of the Universal Periodic Review must be aimed at improving the human rights situation for people.

Jordan, speaking on behalf of the Arab Group, thanked the High Commissioner and said that the Arab Group was aware of the spread of poverty in the Arab countries and appreciated the support of the High Commissioner for the realization of the right to development which should be supported by all. The Arab Group welcomed the readiness of the Tunisian Government to implement reforms towards the establishment of democracy and the rule of law. The Arab Group expressed its concern about racism and gender-based violence and emphasized the need for national and international measurers to deal with those phenomena.

Poland expressed its deep concern about the further deterioration of the human rights situation in Belarus and regretted that the Syrian Government had failed to stop the ongoing grave and systematic human rights violations, many of which could amount to crimes against humanity. Poland reiterated its support for the strengthening of the treaty bodies and noted that the system was facing a number of challenges and that it was the responsibility of States to respond to those challenges by making the system more effective, coherent and better resourced.

Italy strongly condemned the attacks that took place in Nigeria on Sunday, a day of prayer and compassion for Christianity, and stressed that those responsible should be held accountable. Italy reiterated its solidarity and support to governments and institutions targeted by destabilising strategies and engaged in fighting sectarian violence. Italy urged everybody, irrespective of affiliation, to refrain from revenge. The international community and the Council must be united in rejecting violence motivated by religious hatred; they must redouble efforts to promote freedom of religion or belief worldwide and to protect the right of all religious minorities to peacefully practice their faith in an environment free from tolerance and fear.

Russian Federation was deeply alarmed by the increase in xenophobia, in particular in some European countries. Protecting the rights of national minorities and combating discrimination should be a priority for the Office of the High Commissioner. Concerning the support provided to the Universal Periodic Review and the Special Procedures system, the Office should not dictate the position of mandate holders. Regarding questions of management and accountability, the Office of the High Commissioner should be answerable to Member States as the rest of the United Nations, and the Russian Federation intended to pay more attention to this issue. The crisis in Syria could only be solved by peaceful means and the Russian Federation had put forward an initiative to hold a conference on Syria in support of the plan of the Joint Special Envoy, Mr. Kofi Annan.

Norway echoed the call to the international community made by the High Commissioner concerning Syria, a situation difficult to describe other than as a civil war. A special responsibility rested with the Syrian authorities and the regime must be held accountable for gross violations against its own population. Norway regretted that the United Nations Security Council had been unable to act resolutely and to make a clear decision. Norway shared the High Commissioner’s concern about laws and bills restricting freedom of expression and assembly for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons and groups, and continued to support the work of the Office in this area.

Spain applauded the establishment of an international office in Tunisia and the addition of human rights staff in the United Nations Support Mission in Libya. It was particularly concerned about difficulties related to resources and financing mentioned in the High Commissioner’s report. Spain was firmly committed to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights despite these difficulties. Spain also expressed its full support for the strengthening of the treaty body system. Spain appealed for all actors to work together with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to ensure the realization of its main objectives.

Qatar called for the strengthening of global will and political efforts for sustainable development. A sustainable development plan had been developed as part of Qatar’s National Strategy to be more supportive of the environment. The efforts of the High Commissioner to realize the right to development were valued. Tunisia’s readiness to strengthen and implement the rule of law was welcome. Qatar expressed concern about violations by Israel in the Palestinian and Arab Occupied Territories, as well as the situation in Syria. The actions ongoing in Syria were war crimes and crimes against humanity and the international community had to bring those responsible to justice.

Czech Republic welcomed the close attention paid by the High Commissioner and her Office to human rights defenders and human rights activists. It was encouraging to see former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi in Geneva last week giving a speech as a politician and a Member of Parliament. The Czech Republic expressed concern about discrimination against individuals based on their sexual orientation or gender identity and such violations should be addressed on a regular basis and in a systematic manner.

Libya said that the participation of the High Commissioner in the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development was essential because there would be no sustainable development without eradicating poverty. The independence and appropriate resourcing of Special Procedures was essential in order for them to perform their mandates appropriately. Libya was concerned about the grave violations of human rights in Syria and called for the international community to put an end to the daily massacres by the regime.

Republic of Moldova said it shared the vision of the High Commissioner that the post-2015 world should be based on a balanced development framework with equality, participation, accountability and rule of law at its core. The Government of the Republic of Moldova continued to address human rights violations and was focused on the fight against all forms of discrimination, freedom of the media and the fight against impunity and ill treatment. The cooperation of States with mandate holders was crucial for the full implementation of the mandates of the Special Procedures and standing invitations were essential in this regard.

Angola said that consequences of the economic and financial crises disproportionately affected the poor and vulnerable as many social programmes had to be cut as a result. Angola called on the international community to ensure appropriate funding for those activities. The sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe should be lifted because they impacted on the most vulnerable segments of the society. Human rights and the humanitarian situation in the Sahel were of concern and the international community must act urgently to address this.

Kyrgyzstan was confident that the upcoming visit of the High Commissioner would further enhance constructive dialogue and strengthen partnerships. Meaningful and sincere engagement was the most effective approach to promote human rights and fundamental freedoms. In the aftermath of the revolution of 7 April 2010, Kyrgyzstan had completed a political transition and pursued a thorough reform process, including elections and a democratic transfer of power. Developed countries should take the lead in addressing climate change, both given their historical responsibility and higher capacity.

China indicated that under the guidance of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, her Office had carried out important work concerning equality, the right to development, and combating discrimination against people with disabilities. China hoped that the Office would be more impartial in its work respecting historical and other differences in traditions. Chine hoped for increased transparency concerning management of the Office. On June 11, China had released a national human rights action plan, combining economic, political and social development, in conformity with the desire of people from all ethnic groups for a better life, and addressing immediate challenges.

Romania said that the current international context required a prominent role for the High Commissioner and her Office and Romania would continue to offer support. Sustainable development must be firmly grounded in and respectful of all international agreed human rights and fundamental freedoms. The reaction of the Council to human rights situations in countries of deepest concern was imperative and pressure should be maintained for as long as needed. Human rights abuses committed on a large scale had an impact on security matters.

United States expressed grave concern about the deterioration of human rights in Belarus and would be calling for a resolution to create a Special Rapporteur for that country during this session. The United States also called upon the Government of Belarus to allow access to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner and Special Procedures mandate holders. It looked forward to the focused report of the Independent Commission of Inquiry for Syria on the events in Al Houleh.

Indonesia said that the current economic downturn had affected the most vulnerable sectors of society. It was imperative to respect, protect and fulfill economic, social and cultural rights. Indonesia stressed the need to focus on the right to development in the Human Rights Council. It also stressed the urgency to emphasize the human rights dimension of migration. Indonesia shared fears about the growing trend of incidents of racial discrimination, xenophobia and religious intolerance. It supported the mainstreaming of human rights in the United Nations system.

Chile said that coordination was required, in particular political determination, so that the bodies and institutions defending human rights functioned. The cross-cutting nature of human rights was a fact. Chile supported the inclusion of human rights in the Rio +20 Conference. Human rights and citizens rights were pillars of protection. Chile was also concerned about reprisals against those who worked with human rights mechanisms.

Peru said that the spread of crises in the world required resolute action and this was the backdrop against which the Rio+20 Summit was taking place. Peru welcomed the attention of the High Commissioner on the human rights of migrants and encouraged her Office and the Special Procedures to continue working with States to revise their policies on migrants in line with international norms. National institutions for the promotion and protection of human rights played a crucial role in promoting the rule of law and that was why Peru welcomed the support of Ms. Pillay and her Office for the establishment of those institutions in Member States.

Cuba reiterated its rejection of any attempt to undermine the territorial integrity and independence of Syria and supported the search for a peaceful solution with full respect for the sovereignty of this country. Cuba condemned human rights violations perpetrated by some countries of the North, such as the establishment of the prison in Guantanamo. Cuba welcomed the willingness of the High Commissioner to present the strategic framework to the Human Rights Council and stood ready to facilitate this.

Thailand said that the upcoming Rio+20 Conference was an opportunity for the international community to demonstrate its commitment to the right to development. Technical cooperation and assistance needed to be made available for States accepting the Universal Periodic Review recommendations and Thailand was looking forward to implementing the recommendations of the panel on technical cooperation that had taken place during the previous session of the Council. Thailand was a great supporter of the Special Procedures and said that, in the creation of new mandates, care must be taken to avoid duplication of work and overburdening.

Switzerland said an increasing number of States were realising that respect for human rights was a sine qua none requirement for political stability and economic development, in particular those which had undergone conflict. Nevertheless, Switzerland noted with concern that Syria had not managed to escape the spiral of violence and implement the plan of the Joint Special Envoy. The human rights situation also continued to deteriorate in Belarus. In accordance with the report of the High Commissioner, Switzerland stressed the importance of paying attention to vulnerable categories, including migrants and minorities, among others; it was also essential to ensure that representatives of these groups would be able to attend Council meetings in Geneva without fear of retribution.

Maldives reiterated the attention drawn by the High Commissioner to the importance of the Rio Summit. Respect for human rights must be a core component of sustainable development. Maldives hoped that Member States in this Council which had so-far opposed human rights language during negotiations in New York and Rio would support the participation of the High Commissioner. It looked forward to the contribution by the new Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to the enjoyment of a safe, clean and healthy and sustainable environment. Maldives remained concerned about the situation in Syria and by the pervading climate of impunity in the Occupied Palestinian Territories where, despite ongoing violations, Palestinians had no recourse to justice or redress.

Statements by Minister of Foreign Affairs of Finland and Minister of Education and Culture of Uruguay

ERKKI TUOMIOJA, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Finland, said that extreme poverty was still the single biggest human rights challenge. Acting against discrimination was a priority for Finland. Decisive legislative and practical measures against discrimination were needed, especially regarding those who faced raging and flagrant discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity by authorities, the society and their families. All too often women were denied justice, access to resources, and influence in politics as well as in public and economic sectors. Challenges were being faced in areas such as population growth, youth unemployment, global migration, food security and climate change. Multilateral cooperation and a human rights-based approach were required to tackle this. Finland welcomed the special emphasis on women’s rights in this session and stated that women’s full participation in economic life was essential in achieving internationally agreed development goals and in improving the general quality of life in a global context. Women played an instrumental role in safeguarding scarce natural resources and were well-placed to influence responses. Finland considered education as an essential instrument in providing equal opportunities in all aspects of life. It also noted the need to recognize that women were not a homogenous group. Also noted was the importance of recognizing sexual and reproduction rights. Finland urged all States to take the necessary measures to ensure the protection of all human rights defenders.

RICARDO EHRLICH, Minister of Education and Culture of Uruguay, said that Uruguay had been taking firm steps to develop human rights policies in line with international standards. The evidence of this was the recent establishment of the national institution for the promotion and protection of human rights in line with the Paris Principles. The Executive had allocated a house to be used as a headquarters by the national institution, which used to be a clandestine secret prison during the previous regime. This symbolic move demonstrated that Uruguay was learning from its past. Uruguay had ensured compensation to victims of terrorism and was complying with relevant decisions of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Uruguay was in the process of elaborating a national plan for human rights education, which should be adopted in the last quarter of this year. A national human rights training plan for police and judiciary was under development as well. Uruguay was a country on track in ensuring education for all and relied on the support of the international system for the protection and promotion of human rights. Mr. Ehrlich condemned in the strongest terms the violence in Syria and appealed on both sides to abide by the agreements and identify those responsible for the violence. Uruguay appealed for allowing access for the Commission of Inquiry established by this Council and for the safe passage of essential humanitarian assistance.

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For use of the information media; not an official record