5 March 2009
Distinguished Members of the Human Rights Council,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am pleased to present my first annual report to the Human Rights Council. I took office in the middle of the reporting period and wish to acknowledge the impressive contribution of Louise Arbour, my predecessor, who led this Office from 2004 until the first half of 2008.
Undoubtedly, 2008 has been of particular importance for the Council and the work of OHCHR. The past year coincided with the completion of your institution-building process. It also marked the consolidation phase of the Human Rights Council which, with its frequent regular and special sessions, is now virtually a standing body.
The report before you offers a detailed explanation of OHCHR’s activities over this period. At this time, I will only highlight some of its key aspects, as the issues will be more fully covered in our interactive dialogue. I am looking forward to it, as I share Member States’ desire to develop greater interaction and consultations between members of the Human Rights Council and OHCHR. I intend to continue the practice of holding regular briefings with all delegations to share information on OHCHR’s work, vision and strategies.
The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is an innovative mechanism which complements the human rights treaty bodies and the special procedures. As the experience of the review has shown, States have conscientiously prepared their national reports through broad consultations with all relevant stakeholders, including civil society.
Various countries under review firmly pledged to strengthen implementation at the national level, as well as their cooperation with the special procedures. They also announced their intention to ratify human rights instruments to which they were not yet parties, accept optional procedures, as well as comply with outstanding reporting obligations.
At the end of the first UPR cycle, it will be instructive to assess the extent to which independent expertise may further enhance the UPR process, for instance by strengthening links with the treaty body system and the special mechanisms, so that the UPR may evolve into an effective implementation mechanism. Let me also underscore that our field presences are an essential interface between the international human rights machinery and the needs which are expressed at the national level.
The Council has been responsive to some thematic and country-specific emergencies, particularly through its Special Sessions. In my view, it should also and more consistently direct its attention to alleviating chronic human rights conditions through additional forms of interaction. To this effect, the Council could hold informal briefings on issues of specific concern during the intersessional periods. It could also have resort to other informal tools, such as presidential statements or declarations by the President, which would capture the “sense of the Council” without the complicated and lengthy negotiations that resolutions entail.
Distinguished Members of the Human Rights Council,
The special procedures are uniquely placed to act as an early warning system to situations involving serious human rights violations. My Office has successfully ensured a smooth transition between outgoing and new mandate holders following the appointment of 27 new mandate holders. As a result of the special procedures review, rationalization and improvement process, the Council has discontinued a number of country mandates, while it renewed all existing thematic mandates and established two new ones.
Furthermore, the Council has increasingly availed itself of mandate holders’ expertise in the context of emerging or actual crisis situations. I welcome this development and urge the Council to consider how it can provide the mandate holders and my Office with sufficient capacity and resources so that emergency-responsiveness is not undertaken at the expense of the capacity and resources required to carry out the regular monitoring mandates of the special procedures.
OHCHR has continued to support human rights treaty bodies in their quest for improvement and harmonization of their working methods so that the human rights treaty body system can provide the best possible framework for the promotion and protection of human rights for individuals and groups at the national level. This can be done especially through the development of procedures that follow up with their recommendations. During 2008, OHCHR supported the eight existing human rights treaty bodies, and began preparations for the first session of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which met last week. OHCHR continued to advocate for universal ratification of all human rights treaties and their substantive and procedural optional protocols.
Turning now to the core themes of our work, I wish to underscore once again that discrimination is all too often at the root of other human rights abuses. Combating discrimination in all its aspects represents a priority for my Office. During the High Level Segment of this session, I illustrated aspects pertaining to racial discrimination.
On the Durban Review Conference, OHCHR’s main areas of action include supporting the Chair of the negotiations, building a full program of wide-ranging thematic side-events to allow for optimal participation by civil society, and establishing a public information campaign, such as a dedicated website, regular newsletters, and electronic bulletins to NGOs.
Last October, the preparatory committee of the Review Conference asked me to submit my own contribution to the conference process. I have done so. My contribution describes relevant activities that OHCHR has undertaken since 2001. It also formulates proposals to enhance the implementation of the DDPA. These proposals aim at establishing common ground for future action in the fight against racism. Accordingly, they are geared towards increasing synergies, enhancing the effectiveness of the follow-up mechanisms, bolstering our information-gathering and analysis capacity, as well as shoring up the role of civil society. Further, the proposals are conceived to provide a technically sound basis to stimulate incremental progress and agreement on difficult issues.
I sincerely hope that these proposals will be regarded and used as building blocks for a successful outcome of the Durban Review Conference. Given the wide range of issues discussed in the proposals, OHCHR will hold a thorough briefing for Member States next Monday.
As we prepare to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8th, let us not forget that we are far from overcoming discrimination against women and girls. Such discrimination triggers violence against women which, as the UN has noted, has reached the proportions of a pandemic. It also creates the conditions in which impunity can fester.
Although at its most brutal in times of war, violence against women often stems from stereotypes, prejudices, and the lack of equality that had condoned such violence all along. Rendering justice to the victims is, therefore, not only a moral imperative, but also a legal obligation without which communal welfare is compromised.
My Office will focus on safeguarding against sexual violence in situations of conflict and on the promotion of all women’s human rights, including their economic, social and cultural rights which are also a means of securing women’s participation in all aspects of governance.
Moving now to the issue of discrimination against indigenous peoples and minorities, I note with satisfaction the increased engagement of the international community in combating it. For our part, in addition to the dedicated units, several other components of my Office work on the promotion of the rights of marginalized and vulnerable communities. We have also taken a leading role in the promotion of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted in September 2007. Moreover, we helped to launch the Experts Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which held its first meeting in October 2008.
Discrimination also disproportionally affects migrants. In an era of globalisation and cross-border mass movements, ways and methods of ensuring the rights of all, regardless of origin, nationality, and legal status, become essential. This is even more necessary in the light of the global financial and economic crises. As recession engulfs many countries, a rise in xenophobia, anti-migration sentiment and discriminatory practices is all too likely to affect the civil, political, economic, cultural, and social rights of migrant workers and members of their families. Strengthening and maintaining social protection systems, as well as ensuring access to basic services, is crucial to support populations as a whole, as well as those especially vulnerable and marginalized.
A step in the right direction would be universal ratification of the International Convention for the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. My Office actively advocates such development. We are engaged with other specialized agencies and international organisations in ensuring the protection of the rights of all migrants during the entire migration process. As a founding member of the Global Migration Group, OHCHR contributed to the report published in October 2008 on “International Migration and Human Rights”. The report supports a human rights-based approach to migration.
Indispensible preconditions to prosperity, security and welfare hinge upon the implementation of economic, social and cultural rights, as well as upon giving full recognition to the right to development. In the past year, OHCHR has devoted considerable effort to the promotion and advocacy of these issues. Such efforts received additional impetus with the adoption of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Moreover, OHCHR leadership has eagerly contributed to shaping responses to global emergencies, such as the food, climate change and financial and economic crises. We presented policy options at pertinent fora, including the FAO High Level Conference on World Food and Security. Likewise, we continued to advocate an inclusion of a human rights-based approach in the pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
As a trial judge and the President of the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, I came to know first-hand how the fire of ethnic hatred can be stoked to ignite genocide. International justice has come a long way in punishing this heinous crime. We need, however, to better understand how to prevent it from recurring. The Human Rights Council directed my Office to hold a dedicated seminar on the prevention of genocide. Accordingly, OHCHR convoked a seminar of world-renowned experts for an intensive discussion on the prevention of genocide. We will soon publish the outcome of that discussion.
More broadly, on the issue of prevention of serious crimes we insist on the need for combating impunity in order not only to punish, but also-- and crucially--to deter human rights violations and violence. A climate of impunity emboldens perpetrators to strike, while affording no solace to the victims. National and international measures must be taken for securing the right to the truth, the right to justice, the right to reparation and other guarantees of non-recurrence. When States are unwilling or unable to genuinely investigate and prosecute genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, international justice mechanisms must be engaged. To this effect, States should strengthen their cooperation with the International Criminal Court and respect its independence.
My Office is also committed to assisting countries that are making the transition from conflict to stability and peace. Within the framework of our leadership role in the UN system on transitional justice, our work continues to focus on sharing lessons-learned, providing advice and developing strategies concerning mechanisms, standards and tools.
To foster an environment of tolerance and respect, it is vital to strike the right balance between freedom of expression and the need to avert or curtail incitement to hatred. To this effect, I convened an expert meeting last October in Geneva on Article 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. A substantive report on this expert seminar appears as an addendum to the present report.
Human rights must be upheld at all times even in the face of modern day terrorism. OHCHR contributed to the Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force and guided the activities of the Working Group on “Protecting Human Rights While Countering Terrorism”. We focus on the indivisibility of human rights and explore ways to promote and protect fundamental civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights in the context of countering-terrorism, including the rights of detainees.
Since I assumed my functions as High Commissioner in September, I undertook several missions to Latin America, Europe, and Africa. Later this month I will be undertaking a mission to Asia.
My first visit was to Colombia in October where I met President Uribe and other senior officials as well as representatives of civil society. I lauded the Government's efforts to promote accountability, provide remedy to victims, promote respect for human rights within the armed forces and demobilize paramilitary groups. Coinciding with my visit, the largest dismissal of military officers for their alleged involvement or negligence in extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances took place. However, human rights violations persist in the context of the armed conflict in that country.
In Haiti I noted that, despite recent successes in bringing stability to the country, poverty, widespread corruption and drug trafficking continue to undermine attempts at restoring respect for the rule of law through a professional police and judiciary. There is urgent need to address economic and social rights.
I also visited the United Kingdom where I addressed, in particular, the issue of human rights and counter-terrorism, as well as the human rights situation of migrants. I also had an opportunity to visit Germany where I delivered the keynote speech at the Forum on Global Issues, and held a number of bilaterals.
At the beginning of February, I attended the Summit of Heads of State and Government of the African Union. There I had the opportunity to meet with several heads of State, including the Presidents of Burundi, Djibouti and Zimbabwe, as well as with high-level officials of regional organizations.
OHCHR reports on Guatemala and Bolivia are addenda to my Annual Report. In September 2008, the Deputy High Commissioner visited Guatemala to renew the mandate of the OHCHR office there for three more years. Important steps were taken by the Government to enhance the protection of women, including the new Law against Femicide and Other Forms of Violence against Women.
Since I last addressed you, there have been encouraging as well as worrying developments in human rights situations on the ground.
I welcome the decision by the new US administration to close the Guantanamo Bay detention centre, its declared intention to ban methods of interrogation that contravene international law, as well as to review policies of detention, rendition and trial and release of individuals held in connection with armed conflicts and counter terrorism operations.
I also welcome the constructive engagement that OHCHR has been able to develop through our country offices in Uganda and Togo, our human rights advisers in Guinea, Kenya, Niger and Rwanda, as well as our regional offices in Addis Ababa, Yaoundé, Pretoria and Dakar. I am pleased to report the recent deployment of a human rights adviser based at the Great Lakes Conference Secretariat in Bujumbura, Burundi.
The situations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, and Zimbabwe remain matters of concern. OHCHR continues to follow closely human rights conditions in these countries, underscoring the need for accountability for serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, and offering technical assistance.
Of pressing concern is also the situation in Sudan. Yesterday, the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for the arrest of President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir for his alleged responsibility for crimes committed in Darfur. I join the Secretary-General in urging the Government of Sudan to continue to cooperate fully with all UN entities and their implementing partners, while fulfilling its obligation to ensure the safety and security of the civilian population, UN personnel and property, and that of its implementing partners.
Together with the Secretary-General and colleagues in other UN departments, I have been following closely the precarious situation of civilians trapped in the conflict zone in northern Sri Lanka. I welcome the Government of Sri Lanka's assurances of protection and call on all parties to ensure safe passage and refuge for those affected. I hope the Government will take this opportunity to tackle the core problems that have fuelled this conflict, including discrimination and impunity. Those responsible, on all sides, for political killings, disappearances and other violations committed during this conflict must be brought to justice.
I have been dismayed by the harrowing accounts of members of the Rohingya minority of Myanmar who had taken to the sea to flee their country. Reports that many were denied proper assistance and subsequently perished at sea should be thoroughly investigated. I urge all neighboring countries to ensure their appropriate reception, processing and protection, in line with international standards.
Regarding the situations in the Occupied Palestinian territory and in Afghanistan, let me just alert you to the fact that the Deputy High Commissioner will address these vital topics later in the course of this Human Rights Council session, as I will be on mission to Asia. Likewise, my Deputy will introduce other country-specific and thematic reports later in this session of the Council.
I remain concerned about serious allegations of human rights violations perpetrated during and following the August 2008 conflict in Georgia. Except for a very short humanitarian assessment mission in mid-September 2008, the UN has not yet been given full access to South Ossetia. I urge all concerned parties to address the needs of the victims of the conflict and to grant unfettered access to humanitarian and human rights organizations. Furthermore, I stress the centrality of human rights in the political discussions under way in relation to the region as a whole.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
A highlight of the year was the activities marking the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, named “Dignity and Justice for All of Us”. Not only did UN partners eagerly answer the call of the Secretary-General to participate in this campaign, but our advocacy resonated with a variety of constituencies all around the world. To inform the general public about the Universal Declaration and human rights issues, we produced a series of educational materials. Other initiatives that OHCHR led, or supported, included the production of 22 short films by renowned directors, and a companion book featuring 12 pre-eminent writers including five Nobel laureates. In the context of UDHR celebrations, I addressed two conferences in Berlin and Brussels. As part of the campaign, we promoted a week-long effort in October towards protecting the rights of people in detention.
The 60th anniversary of the UDHR was an historic moment in time, for my Office and the HRC to reaffirm our commitment for the protection and promotion of all human rights for all.
I wish you a productive session. Thank you.