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Opening Statement by Ms. Navi Pillay United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at the Human Rights Council 24th Session

9 September 2013

Mr. President,
Distinguished Members of the Human Rights Council,
Excellencies and Colleagues,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for this opportunity to address you.

In September two years ago, when I addressed the situation in Syria at this Council, I pointed out that some 2,600 Syrians had already died in the conflict.

Today the number of dead stands at over 100,000. Last week the number of refugees reached two million, and an additional 4 million people are displaced inside Syria. Camps in neighbouring lands are struggling to cope and we are just a few months away from winter. The suffering of Syria’s civilian population has reached unimaginable levels.

The use of chemical weapons has long been identified as one of the gravest crimes that can be committed, yet their use in Syria seems now to be in little doubt, even if all the circumstances and responsibilities remain to be clarified.

Mr. President, Excellencies,

The International Community is late, very late, to take serious joint action to halt the downward spiral that has gripped Syria, slaughtering its people and destroying its cities. This is no time for powerful States to continue to disagree on the way forward, or for geopolitical interests to override the legal and moral obligation to save lives by bringing this conflict to an end.

This appalling situation cries out for international action, yet a military response or the continued supply of arms risk igniting a regional conflagration, possibly resulting in many more deaths and even more widespread misery. There are no easy exits, no obvious pathway out of this nightmare, except the immediate negotiation of concrete steps to end the conflict. States, together with the United Nations, must find a way to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table and halt the bloodshed.

Mr. President,

While the world gazes in horror upon Syria, we must not forget the sometimes faltering efforts of other peoples, both in the Middle East and elsewhere, to assert their right to live in dignity, peace and security and full recognition of all their rights.

In Iraq, human rights are under assault from a new wave of violence. The resurgence in the indiscriminate sectarian targeting of civilians is deeply alarming. This is not only because of the soaring numbers of killings – with more than 1,800 recorded deaths in the past two months alone -- and accompanying suffering, but also because of the impunity and lack of accountability for the perpetrators and the difficult challenges it poses to human rights and rule of law institutions. I call on the authorities to do the utmost to protect all people in Iraq, and urge it to ensure the investigation it has announced into the recent deplorable killing of at least 52 people in Camp Ashraf is fully independent, thorough and transparent. The authorities must take extra steps to guarantee the protection of the residents in both Camp Ashraf and Camp Liberty.

Iraq has not yet responded to UN and international calls for a moratorium on the death penalty, and continues to periodically execute people in batches. A total of 123 prisoners were executed in 2012, and another 75 so far in 2013, despite the immense risk of miscarriage of justice as a result of systemic weaknesses in the criminal justice system.

I remain alarmed at the continuing violence in Egypt, and call for independent and transparent investigations into all the killings and other violations that have occurred, both in recent weeks and in earlier periods. The path to stability in Egypt lies in its ability to establish the rule of law in an inclusive manner that ensures that all Egyptians, irrespective of their political opinion, gender, religion, or status, are recognized as legitimate stakeholders in the future of their country. I stand ready to support Egypt in efforts to guarantee the rights of all citizens. Last week I received the Egyptian Minister of Transitional Justice and National Reconciliation who conveyed Egypt's readiness to host an OHCHR regional office in Cairo and to have a technical team visit for this purpose. I will shortly be sending Egyptian authorities a draft agreement for the establishment of a regional office in Cairo. In the meantime I await a positive response to my request to deploy a mission to assess the situation at the earliest opportunity.

I regret to report that the human rights situation in Bahrain remains an issue of serious concern: the deep polarization of society and the harsh clampdown on human rights defenders and peaceful protesters continue to make a durable solution more difficult to secure. I reiterate my call on Bahrain to fully comply with its international human rights commitments, including respect for the rights to freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. The cancellation of the scheduled visit of the Special Rapporteur on Torture is regrettable, and important recommendations made by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry have still not been implemented. I also wish to express my disappointment that the cooperation with the Government of Bahrain, which started fruitfully with the deployment of an OHCHR team in December 2012, has not developed further and an OHCHR follow-up mission has been stalled since then.

The May-June events in Turkey underline the need to ensure more consistent protection of the right to peaceful protest, including freedom of expression and assembly, to refrain from excessive use of force by the police and to fully investigate all instances of such excessive use of force. I note the recent decision by the European Court of Human Rights concerning the disproportionate use of force by Turkish police, including the conclusion that the practice of firing tear gas canisters directly into demonstrators was unlawful. I urge the Government to seriously address the issue of policing, which has also been highlighted by international human rights mechanisms, and to carry out systemic reforms in this area with the support of the whole UN system, including my office.

Excellencies,

I am concerned about Israel’s continued policy of forced evictions and demolitions, in at least six different locations in the past three weeks alone, in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. In some cases, no alternative locations or housing options were offered. This may amount to a violation of the prohibition on the forcible transfer of individuals or communities under article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. It may also contravene the prohibition on forced eviction under international human rights law and infringe the rights to adequate housing and freedom from arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, family and home.

I am also concerned by the possible excessive use of force by Israeli security forces against Palestinian civilians during recent search and arrest operations in refugee camps in the West Bank, which since 18 August 2013 has led to the death of five Palestinian civilians. I am, likewise, concerned by the possible excessive use of force by Palestinian security forces in the West Bank which resulted in the death of one civilian in Askar refugee camp, close to Nablus, on 27 August.

I would remind this Council that any use of force and firearms in law enforcement operations, anywhere in the world, must adhere to international human rights standards: it must be proportional to lawful objectives and the use of firearms must be limited to situations of self-defence or the defence of others where there is an imminent risk of death or serious injury, and only when less extreme means are insufficient to achieve these objectives.

I am grateful to the Government of Sri Lanka for facilitating my recent comprehensive visit, which allowed me to assess the progress being made towards reconstruction, reconciliation and accountability in the aftermath of the war – as well as the broader human rights situation, including religious intolerance, governance and the rule of law. I will be reporting on my observations later in the session, but wish to stress my immediate concern for the protection of human rights defenders, journalists and communities I met during my visit from any reprisal, intimidation or attack.

The Secretary-General’s report on cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights is before the Council at this session. It refers to cases of alleged reprisals, or intimidation, against persons as a result of such cooperation, from 16 June 2012 to 15 June 2013.

During my visit to Colombia in July, I was moved by the calls of victims of human rights violations, indigenous peoples, Afro-Colombians and peasants, for equality in access to social, economic and cultural rights, for participation, and for their voices to be heard in the peace negotiations. President Santos is heading peace negotiations after 50 years of internal armed conflict and I welcome his commitment to draw on OHCHR support, especially in the establishment of transitional justice mechanisms in compliance with international standards.

In South Sudan we continue to witness escalating levels of inter-communal violence and growing reports of human rights abuses against civilians caught up in the middle of fighting between the South Sudan army and rebel groups. The outbreak of fighting in early July between rival Lou Nuer and Murle tribes in Jonglei resulted in the killing of an unknown number of people, and the displacements of thousands of civilians. It is a cause for deep concern that the Government of South Sudan has taken so little action to protect civilians in vulnerable areas or to hold those responsible for the violence to account.

I also urge the Government of Myanmar to address the ongoing challenges in Rakhine state, and other areas which have been racked by communal violence. These include ensuring accountability for human rights violations and eliminating discriminatory restrictions on freedom of movement for Muslim populations there. I encourage the Government to set a timetable for the establishment of an OHCHR country office.

Turning to Tunisia, I strongly condemn the assassination on 25 July of Mohamed Brahmi, a leading opposition politician and member of the National Constituent Assembly. This was the third assassination of an opposition figure in ten months. The Government must take strong measures to show it will enforce the rule of law, and the people who carried out these crimes must be held accountable.

Excellencies,

Only a few days ago, the Deputy High Commissioner, Flavia Pansieri, returned from a visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She witnessed renewed fighting around the city of Goma, on 22 and 23 August, and strongly denounced the indiscriminate bombing of civilians as a violation of international humanitarian law.

The scale of sexual violence committed by armed groups, defence and security forces, as well as civilians, remains alarming, with many victims awaiting justice.

There is some hope in Mali where, since the signing of the Preliminary Agreement on 18 June, allegations of grave violations of human rights have markedly decreased. I am heartened by progress in the restoration of peace.

However, the human rights situation remains fragile in the north, with continued reports of summary and extra-judicial executions, forced disappearances, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention and looting of private property.

Last month, the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ivan Šimonović, visited the Central African Republic and reported to the Security Council. I deployed a Fact-Finding Mission to the country from 20 June to 11 July and will report to the Human Rights Council on the degradation of human rights in the CAR combined with the collapse of law and order and the ensuing climate of insecurity and impunity.

Mr. President,

The broad scope of national security surveillance regimes in countries including the United States and the United Kingdom, and the impact of these regimes on individuals’ right to privacy and other human rights, continues to raise concern. Laws and policies must be adopted to address the potential for dramatic intrusion on individuals’ privacy which have been made possible by modern communications technology. While national security concerns may justify the exceptional and narrowly-tailored use of surveillance, I would urge all States to ensure that adequate safeguards are in place against security agency overreach and to protect the right to privacy and other human rights.

I am disturbed by the continued social exclusion and segregation of Roma in many European States. Alongside worrying reports about Roma increasingly becoming the targets of hate speech, demonstrations and violence by non-State actors, the authorities themselves have in some cases adopted policies that increase the vulnerability of Roma populations. I note with concern the findings of the report of the French Ombudsman in July that showed that forced evictions of Roma in France were taking place in ways that were incompatible with international standards and national legislation, and support the Ombudsman’s recommendations.

In similar vein, I also note and support last month’s report of the Ombudsperson in Slovakia which identifies human rights violations committed by the police against the Roma inhabitants of a segregated rural shantytown. I urge both Governments to act on the recommendations of these reports.

Migrants and refugees continue to be subjected to discrimination and xenophobia in many countries, with an alarming number of violent attacks on them occurring in Greece, where existing xenophobic tendencies have been exacerbated by the financial crisis.

I also regret that Australia is re-imposing the discredited policies of transferring those arriving by boat to Papua New Guinea and other locations and I urge the authorities to respect both the letter and spirit of Australia's international obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Many of the 215 million migrants in the world face particular vulnerability and abuse of their human rights in countries of origin, transit and destination. As such, we are working to ensure the integration of human rights norms and standards into all aspects of migration policy, at the national, regional and international levels.

My Office helped ensure that a human rights focus was included in background documentation and discussions at the sixth Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) held in Mauritius in November 2012.

At the Secretary-General’s request, OHCHR also led the preparation in 2013 (in consultation with the Global Migration Group) of a report on Migration and human rights in preparation for the General Assembly High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development (September, 2013) where I have been invited to address the human rights of migrants.

My Office has also advocated for inclusion of the human rights of migrants within the post-2015 development agenda and circulated a background note to the first thematic meeting of the GFMD in May 2013.

Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

For the past five years, our world has been suffering the effects of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. As a result, today, millions are without decent work, adequate food, health care, shelter, and the safety net of social security – and thus without hope itself. Retrogression in the realisation of economic and social rights has reached historic proportions in some regions of the world. To be sure, the causes of the economic crisis are themselves human rights questions, representing as they do a gross failure of the rule of law in the financial sector and in the economic sphere more broadly. The impact of the crisis on human rights – were not inevitable, but the result of conscious policy choices – including the recent trend toward so-called austerity policies which adversely affect the economic and social rights of the most vulnerable communities, including the poor, women, youth, older persons, and persons with disabilities.

OHCHR works to support the realization of economic, social and cultural rights through advice to governments, parliaments, the United Nations system and civil society. We provide technical assistance to governments, civil society and other national stakeholders, at their request, aimed at integrating human rights standards and principles in national development policies, poverty reduction strategies and budget processes for example.

To these ends, our active advocacy contributed to the entry into force of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in May 2013. In Guatemala, following an OHCHR assessment of challenges faced by the General Labour Inspectorate to protect the rights of agricultural workers, the Ministry of Labour strengthened the capacity of that institution. We entered into a partnership with UN-Water to increase rights-based cooperation in the area of water and sanitation. And we provided technical assistance to UN-Habitat in human rights mainstreaming across its programmes. Throughout this period, we also produced a number of substantive thematic reports exploring the economic, social and cultural rights of specific groups, including persons with disabilities, children, and women, respectively.

Last month, my office organized an expert consultation to discuss the legal obligations of member States to which the adoption of austerity measures should be subjected, particularly in relation to the right to social security.

Increasing Food insecurity requires intensified efforts by developed and developing countries alike, to address short-comings in mitigation of food price volatility, global food distribution, and protection of the livelihoods of rural and urban poor. The Horn of Africa, the Sahel, Central and South Asia, and many countries suffering from austerity measures in Europe, are all facing food access challenges. It is essential that Member States renew their commitment to the right to food as a human right and embrace a human rights-based approach to nutrition and hunger as well as addressing structural causes.

OHCHR is an active member of the High-level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis which has been focusing on the Secretary-General's Zero Hunger Challenge.

I would also like to highlight another important aspect of discrimination, which is the alarming pattern of brutality and widespread intolerance against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in all regions. In July, in Cape Town, together with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and South African Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron, I helped launch Free & Equal, an unprecedented global public education campaign, to promote greater respect for the rights of LGBT people everywhere.

Excellencies,

Today I have put before you a selection of the current human rights challenges across the world. Many of them can be termed human rights crises, requiring immediate and resolute action. But we must also lift our aim towards preventing similar situations arising in the future. The independent regular review of States by the UN human rights treaty bodies is a key element of the international community’s system for not only providing early warning of emerging human rights crises, but also for supporting robust national systems to avoid such crises emerging in the first place. To effectively fulfil this crucial function, the treaty body system requires not only the full engagement of Member States, but also adequate resources and the ability to adopt efficient procedures.

I welcome the serious and constructive engagement by member States in the inter-governmental process in New York. Negotiations have reached a critical stage with the presentation by the Co-facilitators (the Ambassadors of Iceland and Indonesia) of draft elements for a resolution in the General Assembly. I believe that the current text contains all the elements necessary to make the Treaty Bodies more effective and sustainable.

Mr. President,

A few days ago the world marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s speech, “I Have A Dream.” It set me thinking about how far we have come, and also how much further we need to go for racism to be defeated. Racism is now universally condemned, and a number of countries have adopted laws and policies promoting racial equality.

But, far too many people are still victimized because they belong to a particular group – whether national, ethnic, religious, or defined by gender or by descent – and too many immigrants are denied equal protection.

In July 2013, together with UNFPA and the Dutch Government, my Office organized the International Thematic Conference on Human Rights in the context of the ICPD Beyond 2014 Review process. The conference brought together a wide diversity of stakeholders to discuss the human rights agenda under the ICPD Programme of Action, and the discussions generated very important ideas about how to move this agenda forward. The ground-breaking agreement reached in Cairo is as relevant today as ever, and delivering on the human rights commitments associated with this agenda, particularly in the area of sexual and reproductive health rights, must be a fundamental part of our collective efforts towards a renewed development agenda.

Right to Development

In June this year I circulated an open letter to member States calling for a new universal, balanced and human rights-based development framework in the post-2015 agenda. I am pleased to inform the Council that human rights feature prominently in the report of the Secretary-General's High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

To help advance broader understanding of the right to development, we completed work on a landmark publication on the subject which will be launched later this year.

The report of the Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel contained a strong human rights focus, and the final UN Task Team Report called for a Post-2015 agenda based on “human rights, equality and sustainability.” Later this year, the General Assembly’s Open Working Group on the Sustainable Development Goals will dedicate a session to human rights, including the right to development, and has invited me to deliver a keynote presentation.

Mr. President, Excellencies,

I am gratified that human rights issues and considerations are growing as a central guiding element of UN peacekeeping, both at the planning stage and during mandate implementation. The Security Council has requested that peace missions systematically prioritize human rights protection activities in the deployment of capacity and resources. Despite critical security conditions in many areas of deployment, these interventions often save lives by deterring perpetrators and providing peacekeeping missions with insights into patterns of violence and needed preventive action.

Mali provides a good example of this heartening trend, where human rights mobile teams have been dispatched to critical areas to document and analyse patterns of violence and advise MINUSMA and host country security forces on measures to prevent further violations.

Elsewhere, as fighting between the M23 rebels and DRC armed forces has resumed in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, MONUSCO human rights officers have increased field visits. They have extensively documented gross human rights violations, including at least 200 cases of sexual violence, and they have been at the forefront of developing mission strategies to protect civilians.

For our part, we will continue to strengthen our engagement to develop policies and training that build peacekeepers’ understanding of their human rights roles and responsibilities, including when they act to protect civilians who are under imminent threat of physical violence. OHCHR, DPKO, DPA and DFS have begun a thorough and extensive review of the state of implementation of a joint policy, issued in 2011, to extend human rights into all aspects of UN peace operations and political missions.

Mr. President,

This year, my Office has also contributed to UN efforts to ensure that alleged human rights violators – especially at the senior level - do not serve in the United Nations. This follows the adoption by the Secretary General of a “Policy on Human Rights Screening of UN Personnel” that applies to the entire Secretariat.

I note with satisfaction the significant progress achieved in implementing the Human Rights Due Diligence Policy, or HRDDP, on UN support to non-UN security forces. I wish to reiterate that a consistent application of the HRDDP principles will bring important benefits to both Member States and the UN system.

Finally, Mr President, I would just like to add that as Chair of the UNDG Human Rights Mainstreaming Mechanism (UNDG-HRM), we are assisting UN country teams all across the world to support Member States, at their request, in human rights strengthening.

Thank you.