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Opening statement by Ms. Navanethem Pillay United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Human Rights Council 13th Session

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

          I am honoured to address the High Level Segment of the Thirteenth session of the Human Rights Council.  I spoke before you for the first time last year against the background of worsening financial and economic crises. 

          These sudden and cascading upheavals exposed and exacerbated existing violations of human rights.  They also widened the areas and increased the number of victims of abuse and hardship.  Some countries have now overcome the most acute phases of recession and hardship. However, according to World Bank economist Shanta Devarajan, in Africa the crises have thrown an estimated 7 to 10 million into poverty, 30-50,000 children may have not reached their first birthday as a result of the recession. 

          The financial and economic downturns—together with food shortages, climate-related catastrophes and continuing violence—have shattered complacent or over-optimistic notions of expanding security, prosperity, safety and the enjoyment of freedoms by all.

          The cataclysmic earthquake that struck Haiti and its aftermath are tragic illustrations of multiple vulnerabilities that leave so many unprotected. My thoughts are with the victims of this catastrophe and with those of the earthquake and tsunami that have hit Chile, as well as with those who perished in the floods in Europe.

          To counter deeply rooted and chronic human rights conditions in many countries, such as repression, discrimination, and strife, as well as rapidly unfolding man-mad and natural challenges to human welfare, such as those we have recently experienced, five years ago the United Nations initiated a process of reform that proposed several innovations, including the creation of the Human Rights Council.

          This new institution was conceived as a forum where responses to inequality, repression, and impunity could be crafted and advocated to help build a world in larger freedom.   

          The General Assembly envisaged a body guided by the principles of universality, impartiality, objectivity, non-selectivity, transparency, and accountability.
          Accordingly, the founding resolution of the Human Rights Council endowed the Council with a strong mandate.  It empowered the Council to meet as often as needed beyond its regular annual three sessions.  Crucially, it bestowed upon this body the responsibility to examine at regular intervals the human rights record of all UN Member States through the aptly named Universal Periodic Review mechanism.  It also envisaged a review of the Council after five years.

          This review of the Council, now forthcoming, will help the international community to assess whether the fundamental principles of this body’s mandate have been solidly and consistently upheld.  It need not be a complex alchemy.  The current operational framework of the Council enables it to be both far-reaching in its interventions, as well as methodologically well-equipped to discharge its mandate.
 
          We must, however, address gaps in the Council’s practices in order to attain greater equality and a framework in which the public good is more widely enjoyed.  We must do so in a constructive, transparent, and pragmatic manner, and benefit from the contributions of all stakeholders in Government and civil society. Discussions of these themes and other issues that may arise in the review process should not be, or be perceived as, a zero-sum game.  Critical thinking and suggestions are welcome, but we should not focus on criticism.  Rather, we must try to draw on lessons learned from the Council’s operations and seize this opportunity to make necessary adjustments, while recognizing and not undermining its achievements. 

          Allow me to briefly discuss the latter.  Achievements include this body’s standard setting, as well as its own institution-building process, particularly the UPR.  Its flexible modus operandi, its capacity to sound an alarm in the face of crises, and its convocation of special sessions on urgent matters are also notable.  Equally important has been the increased time and attention given to thematic Special Procedures. 

          Panels held during the Council’s sessions and other forms of debates enhance its responsiveness. The creation of fact-finding missions expands this body’s knowledge base, as well as that of the international community.

          I wholeheartedly welcome the numerous and growing opportunities I have had to interact with the Council and its individual members.  These appropriately paced exchanges help us sharpen our understanding of our respective activities and responsibilities.  I regard as essential the contributions of regional organizations, National Human Rights Institutions and civil society groups.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

          Against this background, I would like to suggest that four broad areas may lend themselves to further improvement in the practice of the Council.  As a first observation, I note that, while the Council has often reacted in a timely manner to emergencies, it could also become more alive to the realities of drawn-out and less visible challenges to human rights.  In short, it should devise ways and means to devote more attention to chronic human rights conditions that the waxing and waning of crises or of public outcry neglect.

          My second observation pertains to the need to improve coordination among the various human rights mechanisms.  Overlap or duplication of recommendations must be avoided regarding States’ reporting obligations to treaty bodies, as well as with recommendations of Special Procedures, and of the Universal Periodic Review.   States may, in fact, be tempted or forced to implement recommendations selectively.  We need to generate synergy among the outcomes of various human rights mechanisms.  This will help Governments to optimize efforts in implementation of their obligations under international human rights treaties and address the concerns of both independent experts and peers.   

          This consideration leads me to my third point which concerns the Human Rights Council’s effectiveness in influencing policy change in human rights situations.  The Council’s authority will largely depend on making its deliberations actionable and in a way that leads to discernible improvements in human rights conditions.  Ultimately, however, no matter how well intentioned, determined, and incisive the Council’s action is, this body cannot by itself or through remote control, change realities on the ground.  Producing this change is, primarily, the responsibility of States which need to act in partnership with civil society and national protection systems.

          To motivate States’ compliance with their obligations and responsibilities, the Human Rights Council needs both internal cohesion and external credibility, since its influence rests on persuasion, not coercion.  Consequently, this body must avoid falling back on regional reflexes. 

          Let me underscore that the HRC’s reputation rests on non-partisanship and collegiality, on its ability to create an enabling environment and a forum for constructive, non-politicized dialogue and cooperation on human rights.  Ultimately, it is through cooperation, mutual respect and goodwill that tangible change in the lives of affected people can be produced.

          My fourth observation regards the need to pair tasks with resources in order to bolster the authority and credibility of the human rights system.  To be sure, the growing list and scope of activities carried out by the Council, or on the Council’s behalf, are a measure of this body’s ambition, activism and success.  I encourage the international community, including the Council’s Member States, to ensure that the increasing number and variety of human rights mechanisms’ tasks are adequately resourced in order to preserve and bolster the quality and the long-term effects of this vital work.

          For its part, OHCHR will continue to assist the Council to the best of its ability and reach out to victims wherever needed. 

          The expansion of our presence in the field, as well as the increasing and deepening interaction with UN agencies and other crucial partners in Government, international organizations, and civil society that my Office has undertaken, are crucial aspects of the OHCHR mandate.  In pursuing this mandate, we seek to preserve the autonomy of judgement and scope of action that are indispensible to human rights work and advocacy.

          Later in this session, I will present my second annual report as High Commissioner for Human Rights.  That report contains a detailed account of the whole range of activities that my Office carried out in the past year.  It also illustrates actions and results of the vision that underpins our efforts. 

          And now allow me to recall the six priority areas that OHCHR has identified as requiring additional focus in the next biennium.  These priorities, pursued with our core work on all rights, will provide more visibility to issues of increasing concern.  They are:

  • Countering discrimination, in particular racial discrimination, discrimination on the grounds of sex, religion and against others who are marginalized;
  • Pursuing economic, social and cultural rights in efforts and combating inequalities and poverty, including in the context of the economic, food and climate crises;
  • Protecting human rights in the context of migration;
  • Combating impunity and strengthening accountability, the rule of law, and democratic societies;
  • Protecting human rights in situations of armed conflict, violence and insecurity; and,
  • Strengthening human rights mechanisms and the progressive development of international human rights law.

          The identification of these thematic areas stems from a broad assessment within our Office which took stock of issues already identified by States at the inter-governmental level. 

          Indeed, through our sharpened focus, and together with the Human Rights Council, as well as with our partners in the UN, national human rights institutions and civil society, we will endeavour to ensure that the forthcoming review process will help Member States to enhance human rights implementation.

          We should continue to build on the Secretary-General’s vision of reform and keep developing a narrative of the possible, the imperative and the achievable, in the name, and for the sake of, human rights.

          Thank you very much.