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Address of Louise Arbour UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Informal Meeting of the Commission on Human Rights


Geneva, 28 September 2004

Mr. Chairperson, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen

It is my pleasure to be with you today and to welcome all of you to this informal one day meeting. As it is the first time I have the pleasure of addressing you, allow me to start by saying how much I look forward to working with you and also to having the opportunity to exchange views on matters of common interest and concern.

I shall say a few words in a moment on the different challenges that we face in the field of human rights. But let me begin by re-affirming what my predecessors have consistently underlined, namely, that the Commission on human rights is a central pillar of the United Nation system.


I am aware of the debates and controversies which have too often surrounded the work of the Commission in the past; but I am also fully cognizant of the fact that the Commission is a fundamental forum of discussion in which all participants gather every year for six weeks to discuss a wide and comprehensive range of human rights issues.

Despite serious difficulties over the years, the Commission has achieved a great deal. It has provided the international community with universal human rights frameworks embedded in the Universal Declaration, the two International Covenants and other core human rights treaties. These instruments have inspired provisions in many national constitutions and laws, and led to the creation of national and international infrastructures for the promotion and protection of human rights. We should continue to strengthen this legal framework, and governments should systematically look into the commitments they entered into at the Vienna Conference in terms of ratification of or accession to international human rights instruments, including the Migrant Workers Convention which deserves to be adhered to by many more Member States.

In our assessment of the Commission’s work we should therefore never underestimate the crucial role it has played in defining the legal basis for the human rights machinery that is now driving the enforcement of internationally recognized human rights norms at the international, regional and national levels.


My report to the General Assembly, an advanced copy of which was placed on our website earlier this week, examines the reform process which the Commission embarked upon during the chairpersonship of Ambassador Selebi, from South Africa, in 1999. I am convinced that such a process is fundamental for the Commission as well as for any other human rights body and must be taken up with seriousness and conviction. In this context, ideas evoked by the Secretary-General in his addresses to the Commission and in his reports to the General Assembly, as well as proposals and initiatives which my predecessors fostered, should serve as the setting against which new initiatives could be envisaged. Again, I am ready to contribute to such a process should it be considered opportune or useful.

(Standard-Setting and good offices)

The Commission on Human Rights should continue to be the driving force for the further development of human rights norms and the principal defender of the universality and indivisibility of human rights. I am thus following with utmost interest the work undertaken by the intergovernmental working groups and bodies which are currently actively involved in complementing the existing set of human rights standards. I will study the outcome of their work and make myself available to the Chairpersons of these groups should they consider my input appropriate or necessary to overcome any difficulties that may arise.

In this regard, I must underline the importance which I attach to the role the High Commissioner may be able to play in proposing good offices in resolving a variety of issues should circumstances arise.

(Treaty Bodies)

Human rights treaty bodies also deserve strong support from my office. The expertise, objectivity and consistency which the expert members bring into their daily activities and the important role they play in upholding the very norms which the Commission has brought in life, make them irreplaceable in protecting human rights at the national level.

(Special Mechanisms)

Another essential role played by the CHR lies in the establishment of an impressive network of special mechanisms, actively providing assistance in translating the various international human rights norms into deeds at the national, regional and universal levels. They perform an indispensable function as actors on the front lines who help to inform and alert us on violations of human rights. As a former judge and prosecutor of international tribunals, I attach particular importance to the expertise and independence of these procedures. They will be able to rely on my full support.


In the same vein, I also value the important work of the NGO community as a whole and their active participation at the Commission on Human Rights. Their dedication and energy are essential in the challenges we face within the field of human rights. I wish to signal in particular the work of human rights defenders at the national level who are, as underlined by the Secretary-General, “in the front lines of protection, casting the bright light of human rights into the darkest corners of tyranny and abuse”. Following my predecessors, I will continue to work closely with all these invaluable actors as much as possible at the international, regional and national level.


(Urgent Reporting)

Human rights violations are one of the greatest sources of insecurity in the world and they are often at the very source of conflicts. Massive and systematic violations of human rights constitute a threat to international peace and security. Even if the system for protecting human rights at the international level has been in place for a long time as a solid mechanism, it is today under considerable pressure and demands our full commitment. Indeed, as we speak, the international community faces major challenges: threats to international peace, domestic conflicts leading to insecurity and violence, all under the sinister shadow of ruthless terrorism.

In my report to the General Assembly, I referred to the reports which my predecessors shared with the Commission on Human Rights or the Security Council and indicated that I found such a tool irreplaceable both to provide appropriate information to United Nations bodies and to call for proper and urgent remedial action by competent bodies when circumstances so require. It is my intention, if and when necessary, to continue this practice to draw urgent attention to situations and to invite those concerned to take the necessary measures to remedy gross and massive human rights violations.

Recently, such urgent reports were submitted to the Commission on Human Rights by the Acting High Commissioner concerning Iraq and the situation in the Darfur Region of Sudan. I would like to apprise you of further developments in Darfur since the last report, particularly regarding my mission to the region which ended two days ago. However, given the nature, scope and timing of this informal meeting, I will refrain from providing information of a substantive nature on the mission which I will reserve for my report to the Secretary-General.

(Mission to Sudan)

On 16 September, the Secretary-General asked me and his Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, Juan Méndez, to visit Darfur to see what can be done, now and in the future, to provide better protection for the civilians who are desperately in need of assistance. We arrived in Khartoum on Saturday, 18 September, with a mission very much focused on questions of safety and security, particularly for the estimated 1.4 million of IDP in Darfur.

In Khartoum we met with the Minister of Justice, the Sudanese National Commission of Inquiry on the crisis in Darfur, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNAMIS), members of the diplomatic community and representatives of national and international NGOs. Subsequently, Mr. Méndez, my colleagues and I spent five days in Darfur visiting the three regional capitals of El Fashir, Nyala and El Geneina, as well as a number of outlying towns and villages, such as Zalingei and Kass.

At each location, we visited IDP settlements and held lengthy conversations with many of the displaced to understand better their plight. Likewise, we met also with local government and judicial authorities, as well as with the United Nations and NGO humanitarian operations based in Darfur.

At this juncture, I would like to pay credit to those individuals carrying out critical, much needed humanitarian work in Darfur in conditions that are far from easy. They are a credit to the United Nations, to the capacity of NGOs to operate quickly and effectively on the ground, and to the international community as a whole.

I found this visit invaluable in allowing me to gain a better, clearer insight into what is a complex and tragic situation in Darfur. I came away more convinced than ever of the imperative need to redouble efforts across the board to improve the protection afforded to the citizens of Darfur. As I said above, I shall be providing the Secretary-General with a series of recommendation which I hope will enable us, collectively, to do just that.

I have provided you with information on this particular situation because of its importance at this particular juncture and because it is my conviction that we must develop a more robust approach to the protection of all human rights holders who are in a most vulnerable position in zones of conflict and in times of crisis.


(Human Trafficking)

One of the most serious challenges facing human rights today is human trafficking. Large numbers of women and children are tricked, sold or otherwise coerced into situations of exploitation, forced labour or slavery-like-practices. By its very definition, trafficking constitutes a denial of all those fundamental rights that make for a life with dignity. Human trafficking is also a major development challenge, for its root causes lie embedded in key development issues including insecurity of food and means of livelihood, poverty, structural inequalities and migration. Yet, despite its overwhelming human rights and development dimensions, trafficking continues to be addressed as a “law and order” problem. Victims of cross-border trafficking are prosecuted as illegal aliens and undocumented workers rather than properly treated as victims of a crime. Women and young girls who are trafficked into the sex industry are charged with the crime of prostitution instead of receiving assistance as exploited victims. It’s my firm objective to remain extremely pro-active in this regard. I will continue to place this issue at a prominent place in the activities of the Office and will cooperate with the relevant mechanisms, including the Special Rapporteur on trafficking.

(Civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights)

This issue also demonstrates clearly how civil, political economical, social and cultural rights are intrinsically linked. Trafficked women or children face violations of all these rights whatever their particular nature. The recognition of the indivisibility of economic social and cultural rights on the one hand, with civil and political rights on the other, transforms the entire range of human rights into an indispensable and powerful tool for achieving sustainable human development.

(Right to development)

I would also call attention to the interesting progress occurring around the overall issue of the right to development. More concretely, I will provide all my support to the efforts surrounding the high-level task force on the right to development in order to ensure its success as well as that of the Working Group on the right to development.


I spoke earlier on the work of intergovernmental working groups in terms of standard setting and underlined my intention to support them as appropriate. Let me add that I will involve myself in the work which the Durban Working Group will undertake. Whatever the controversies of the past, it is of importance to look beyond them to address the challenges which the whole world is facing regarding racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.


(Rule of Law)

There has also been significant development in OHCHR in the field of democracy and the rule of law. Emphasis is placed on building partnerships at both Headquarters and field levels, including work with peacekeeping operations, and on developing frameworks, policies, and practical tools that will strengthen international and national efforts in this area. An expert workshop started yesterday to discuss an Operational Manual which targets UN field missions and addresses some key rule of law needs of societies emerging from conflicts. OHCHR has contributed to the development of standards and practices in the area of administration of justice, with particular attention to impunity and reparations. In this regard, a third consultative meeting is being held this week to study a revised version of the basic principles and guidelines on the right to a remedy and reparation for victims of violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. I am attaching particular attention to developments in this area and will follow closely the outcome of the meeting.

(Indigenous Decade)

This year marks the end of the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People (1995-2004) which was coordinated by my predecessors. The ECOSOC has received a preliminary evaluation of the Decade (E/2004/82) and supplementary information has been submitted to the General Assembly. The General Assembly will also have before it a recommendation made by ECOSOC to declare a Second Decade of the World’s Indigenous People. It is my intention to convene a consultation early next year to elaborate a preliminary draft programme of activities for a second Decade in the event of a second Decade being approved

(HR Education)

Following your recommendation to the General Assembly that a World Programme for Human Rights Education be launched starting on 1 January 2005, my office is currently working with UNESCO and other partners to prepare a plan of action for the first phase (2005-2007) of the World Programme devoted to the integration of human rights education within national school systems.


(Field activities)

Finally, as is frequently emphasized, developing norms, machineries and programmes at the international level is necessary but should not be construed as being an end in itself. It must be well supported at the national level. It implies building, developing and strengthening capacities at the national level. Underlining its promotion and protection mandate, OHCHR work at the country level is aimed at the implementation of international human rights norms and, in particular, the translation of such norms into laws and practices at the national level. Within this framework, my office activities at the country level are wide-ranging and multi-faceted. They include protection work, technical cooperation, support of national human rights institutions, setting up and backstopping field presences (including human rights components of peacekeeping missions), and support to country rapporteurs or independent experts of the Commission.

At the same time, it is important to identify ways and means to improve our performance at the country level and, accordingly, my Office is supporting the Secretary-General’s Reform programme, in particular within the framework of action 2. While maintaining focus on its core protection mandate, OHCHR is thus actively pursuing activities in the fields of human rights promotion, capacity and infrastructure-building. In doing so, the Office is increasingly using its limited financial and human resources to guide and advise its cooperation partners in the UN country teams. In this connection, the Action 2 plan of action will be formally launched in New York on 27 October 2004 and I invite all of you to take note of this important event.

Other efforts will need to be made to ensure a palpable impact at national levels. In particular, initiatives such as the adoption of the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, which provides for practical tools to prevent the occurrence of human rights violations a the local level, need to be promoted.

I am certain that I will find support in this Commission for such initiatives.

Let me conclude by pledging to you, once more, my full support and that of my colleagues.

Thank you.