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Statement by Louise Arbour United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at the opening of the 57th session of the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights

25 July 2005

Mr. Chairperson
Distinguished Members of the Sub-Commission,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to be here today and to welcome all of you to the 57th session of the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.

Over the years, the Sub-Commission has provided the Commission on Human Rights and other human rights mechanisms with insights and ideas, based on the expertise and experience of its members. The various studies and working papers undertaken by the members of the Sub-Commission have, to a large extent, helped to identify and develop new areas for further consideration.

Several issues on your agenda are of particular interest to me. As you are aware, the Secretary-General has identified the rule of law as an area of priority for the United Nations – a view that I strongly share. In this context, I am following with attention the development of the draft principles governing the administration of justice through military tribunals as well as the draft principles on human rights and terrorism. I am also very much interested in research that has been undertaken on emerging issues such as the accountability of UN personnel in peace support operations, the relationship between human rights law and international humanitarian law, and the right to a remedy for violations of human rights by the State. Your work on the right to water and non-discrimination in the context of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights is particularly sensitive and I hope will make a contribution to the ongoing debate. These are examples of some of the interesting and important work that are being done in the Sub-Commission and its various working groups.

A number of recommendations of the Sub-Commission have also been endorsed by the Commission on Human Rights. As you know, one of the recommendations proposed by the Sub-Commission last year has led the sixty-first session of the Commission to establish a new mandate on the rights of persons belonging to minorities. In its resolution 2005/79, the Commission has entrusted me with the task of appointing an independent expert on minority issues who will promote the implementation of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities. The expert will also identify best practices and possibilities for technical cooperation by my Office at the request of Governments. I believe this is an important mandate and I intend to appoint an expert as soon as the Economic and Social Council approves the Commission’s decision to establish the mandate this week.

Mr. Chairperson,

It has been one year since I took up my post as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Since then, I have, with the support of my staff at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, been able to familiarize myself with the multifaceted aspects of work undertaken by the various human rights bodies, including the Sub-Commission. It happens that this year has also been extremely rich in developments which may lead to important changes in the United Nations system. Today, I would like to share with you some of my observations on the reform proposals of the Secretary General on human rights and on the future of OHCHR.

During this year’s session of the Commission on Human Rights, I very much felt encouraged, and at the same time, concerned, about this inter-governmental mechanism. I was encouraged because I was convinced that the vigorous and broad discussions on key human rights issues at the Commission helped move the international human rights agenda forward. I was struck by the participation of Government representatives at a high level as well as non-governmental organizations from around the world throughout the six-week session of the Commission.

At the same time, I witnessed the difficulties faced by the Commission in addressing issues of human rights at the national level. Though I realize that the Commission is an inter-governmental body and political considerations are inherent to its nature, I strongly believe that more can be done by the international community to address the emerging issues and crisis situations around the world.

It is in this context that I saw the far-reaching and comprehensive reform proposals of the Secretary-General, which addressed the work of the Commission and its mechanisms. The Secretary-General has proposed to replace the Commission with a Human Rights Council, which would be a standing body, situated higher in the Organization’s structure, and elected by the General Assembly. The Council would be located here in Geneva, and it would exercise universal scrutiny of the implementation by all Member States of all their human rights obligations through a peer review mechanism based upon fair, transparent and non-selective procedures. The Council would also serve as a forum for human rights dialogue, conduct normative work, respond to crises, and promote technical assistance. In short, his recommendations for reform are aimed at raising the profile and authority of human rights with the United Nations and the international community.

In May of this year, I submitted the “OHCHR Plan of Action: Protection and Empowerment”, which was called for by the Secretary-General in his report “In Larger Freedom: towards development, security and human rights for all”. The Plan forms an integral part of the Secretary-General’s reform proposals and builds on his observations that OHCHR must be considerably better resourced to play its key role in addressing today’s threats to human rights. It sets out my vision to strengthen the Office and its synergy with the United Nations human rights machinery.

While the Plan of Action fully recognizes that the United Nations has, over the years, been productive in developing human rights normative standards, it stresses the need to better address today’s human rights challenges, including those posed by poverty, discrimination, conflict, impunity, democratic deficits and institutional shortcomings. OHCHR will respond to such challenges by shifting its strategic emphasis from normative development to implementation, and by focusing on how these normative standards are applied to deal with the problems faced by the world today. We will strive, in particular, to close the human rights gaps on the ground, including those related to knowledge, capacity, commitment and security.

In the Plan of Action, I make specific recommendations for:

l A greater engagement with countries;
l An enhancement of the human rights leadership role of my Office;
l Closer partnerships with the civil society and United Nations agencies;
l More synergy between OHCHR and the various UN human rights bodies; and last, but not least,
l Strengthened management and planning for OHCHR

The Plan further elaborates on how results could be achieved in these areas. I call for regular system-wide human rights consultations, a strengthened New York presence for my Office, interaction with the Security Council as well as the proposed peace building commission, and the publication of a global annual human rights report. The Plan also proposes a global human rights campaign, and more involvement in work related to poverty reduction and the Millennium Development Goals. It lays out strategies for greater country engagement through an expansion of geographic desks, increased deployment of human rights staff to the field, and establishment of standing capacities for rapid deployment, investigations, and technical advice and assistance.

Finally, the Plan recognizes the special procedures as an essential element of the United Nations efforts to protect human rights. I see strengths in their independence, ability to focus on an issue or situation through country visits and accessibility to victims. The Plan also recognizes that the treaty bodies play a vital role in the protection and promotion of international human rights. The system, however, has much room for improvement in making its work more efficient, and a unified treaty body system is called for in the Plan.

The recommendations contained in the Plan are meant for moving our human right agenda forward, for reaching out to right holders and for establishing better partnerships with stakeholders. As my Office is currently in the process of implementing this Plan of Action, I invite you to share your thoughts and ideas with my Office on how best to translate words into action.

Mr. Chairperson,

This brings me to the issue of the future of the Sub-Commission in the context of the United Nations reforms. There is no doubt that there will always be room for normative and analytical work in the future of the principal UN human rights body, whatever form that takes. The appropriate forum for such work is a question that is now in the hands of several stakeholders, including States. In making their assessment, it will be essential that stakeholders bear in mind the ultimate goal of any reform in the human rights field: to make a difference in enhancing the effective realization of human rights to all persons across the globe.

In this regard, I, on behalf of my Office, would like to express our deepest respect for the dedication and commitment of all those who have come to Geneva to participate in this year’s human rights discussions at the Sub-Commission, and wish you well as you continue making your important contributions to the greater realization of human rights around the world. Thank you.