Header image for news printout

Statement by Ms. Navanethem Pillay United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

Rome, 10 March 2010

Honourable Members of Parliament,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great privilege to address you today. When I am in Rome, I am always awed by the many layers of history and comforted by the notion that human progress continues to draw inspiration from these august surroundings.

I feel this not only as a visitor, but also as an individual whose professional trajectory has been profoundly influenced by events that have taken place in Rome, particularly the creation of the International Criminal Court, where I served as a judge.

And now, as High Commissioner for Human Rights, I visit Rome at another momentous time for human rights advancement.The United Nations Human Rights Council, the pre-eminent human rights intergovernmental institution, is about to undergo its first review after five years of operations.All States, Members of the Human Rights Council or not, have both a stake and a responsibility to make this UN body more responsive, authoritative and effective.

To this end, it is essential that States give effect to the deliberations of the Council by implementing its resolutions and recommendations.The latter stem from a process known as the Universal Periodic Review, that is, the periodic assessment of the human rights record of all UN Member States.

Thus far, 112 countries have undergone this review.Last February, the Council assessed Italy and issued 92 recommendations.It is fair to say that a critical mass of them focussed on three topics, namely migration, discrimination, and the need to create a national human rights institution. These will also be the subjects that I will discuss now and in the course of the many meetings that I will have with Italian authorities today and tomorrow.

Allow me to begin by noting that the wealth placing Italy among the seven richest countries in the world was created through the hard work, inventiveness, and ingenuity of all Italians.Migrants from the peninsula played their part in this economic growth by sending remittances back home, easing the economic hardship of their kin and building contacts and exchanges across borders.

Many foreign workers are now seeking in Italy the same opportunities that Italians once found abroad. They offer the same crucial contributions that enriched countries benefiting from Italian migration.

I recognise that this has posed challenges to Italy’s migration policy, and has at times strained its social infrastructure and mechanisms. Yet Italy shares with many European countries an undeniable need for the labour of migrant workers.

However, all too often for many migrants to or within Europe, the process of migration is not the positive and empowering experience that it should be. Rather, it is characterized by human rights violations, discrimination and exploitation. Indeed, migrants are particularly vulnerable to such abuses.

It is my belief that the protection of migrants is one of the most urgent human rights challenges of today.Thus, it is of the utmost importance that in crafting and applying the law, parliaments, the executive and the judiciary maintain a human rights approach to migration at the front and centre of their action.  This is done by ensuring that the rights of migrants are upheld at all stages of the migration process, by shielding them from violations, and by bringing the perpetrators of abuse to account.

A fundamental step in the right direction is absorbing pertinent human rights standards into domestic law. In this regard, I urge the Italian authorities to accede to and ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, which offers the most comprehensive framework for the protection of the human rights of migrants.

The Convention states that migrant workers and members of their families have the right to liberty and security of person.They are entitled to effective protection by the State against violence, physical injury, threats and intimidation, whether by public officials or by private individuals, groups or institutions.Moreover, the Convention stipulates that they should not be subjected individually or collectively to arbitrary arrest or detention.

The low level of ratification of this human rights treaty is regrettable. To date the Convention counts only 42 States parties. However, I am confident that the gap between national legislations of some EU Member States and the standards of the Convention is narrowing. This should enable States to move towards ratification. On December 18, 2010, we will celebrate the twentieth anniversary of this important treaty. I invite you to join my Office’s efforts to make the most of this opportunity and make it a springboard towards the goal of the Convention’s universal acceptance.

Honourable Members of Parliament,

Migrants are often perceived not only as competitors for finite resources, but also as threats to the security of established communities.

Let me emphasize that in many countries there exists a clear danger of keeping migration within the strict confines of “security agendas”.This reductive approach may defeat its own stated purpose by fuelling misconceptions and prejudices, fear and resentment rather than bolstering safety and smooth coexistence in diverse communities.

When the military is called out to patrol the streets, or when the declaration of a public emergency or the formation of vigilante groups are among the most visible responses to migration, human rights protection suffers. Moreover, politicians and other public officials should refrain from pronouncements that disparage migrants and stoke suspicions.

I also continue to be concerned by provisions in the Italian “Security Package” which make the irregular status of a migrant an aggravating circumstance for an ordinary crime.

I wish to be absolutely clear that it is the responsibility of public authorities to ensure that migrants are not stigmatized, vilified and attacked.

In this context, I note that investigations are taking place into recent incidents of violence against migrants in southern Italy, and urge the authorities to move speedily to bring the perpetrators to justice and to institute appropriate measures to prevent the recurrence of such violence.

At all times, we should never lose sight of the goal of integrating migrants into the communities where they live and work while respecting their diversity.It is of crucial importance to put in place vehicles and mechanisms that stimulate the informed participation and contribution of migrants in matters that affect them.

Education, labour rights, housing, and healthcare are particularly important to the well being and successful integration of migrants. Yet migrants, particularly those in an irregular position, face many obstacles in securing these literally vital entitlements.

Obstructing access to services, institutions and goods that give effect to economic, social and cultural rights represents a violation of migrants’ human rights. The criminalization of the provision of some services, including housing, may force migrants in irregular situations into even more precarious circumstances, opening the way for further abuse and exploitation.  These migrants’ vulnerability is compounded by the fact that they cannot secure administrative or judicial remedies because of their irregular status.

I have been heartened by the findings of a recent survey by Censis. According to this poll, 80 percent of Italians are in favour of granting free national health coverage to irregular migrants.Although limited in scope, this survey shows that contrary to perceptions, the Italian public deeply cares about the fundamental human rights of migrants, irrespective of their status under the law.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Recently, I had the opportunity to raise my concerns regarding the fate of migrants at sea.I noted that human beings adrift at sea are not toxic cargo and should not be treated as such. I am also aware that the Italian Coast Guard has saved thousands of lives in rescue operations.  I take this opportunity to call on the Italian Parliament to remind ship owners and captains, as well as port authorities operating in the Mediterranean, that the rescue of persons in distress at sea is not only an obligation under international law, but also a humanitarian necessity. There must be an unequivocal recognition that no persons, including asylum seekers and migrants, inhabit a human rights limbo while travelling or upon reaching a destination other than their country of origin.I remind competent authorities that asylum is a right protected under international law.

This observation leads me to my next point concerning the detention of those who are apprehended.  Let me stress that under international human rights law, and because of the drastic impact of detention on an individual, the deprivation of liberty should in all cases be a measure of last resort.In all circumstances, it is crucially important that there should be a legal basis for such detention, and that procedural safeguards be put in place to regulate it. Migrants must be adequately informed about their rights and have the opportunity to effectively challenge the legality of their detention.  I call on Italian authorities to implement the recommendations of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which visited Italy in November 2008.

With regard to the conditions of migrants in detention centres, I am concerned about reports of overcrowding and inadequate access to basic rights, such as health care services and education.This situation should be remedied without delay. I am also concerned about reports of inadequate safeguards to protect children in border control procedures.

Honourable Members of Parliament,

Allow me to turn now to issues related to discrimination, the second topic of my discussion, with particular reference to the conditions of Roma people.  Policies concerning the Roma people must comply with international human rights standards.  I am alarmed at reports of forced evictions of Roma without appropriate procedural guarantees. I am also concerned about the reported lack of access of Roma children to education in unauthorized settlements.

Although Roma have traditionally been discriminated against and socially excluded, they are not the only minority that suffers the effects of intolerance.The Fundamental Rights Agency has recently undertaken a survey which shows that, of all European Union Member States, the highest average number of discrimination incidents over a 12 month period was experienced by North Africans in Italy.

There is no doubt in my mind that these episodes of discrimination must be addressed in their proper context, that is, by using a framework where universal human rights, dignity and equality are considered the guiding principles of public policy and remedial action.

I have urged the Italian Government to join the consensus that emerged at the Review Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, which was held in Geneva last year.  Ten countries, including Italy, did not participate in the Conference where 182 States agreed on a common document, called the Outcome Document, enshrining a common aspiration: to defy intolerance in all its manifestations and work to stamp it out.  Discrimination does not go away by itself. Every nation must be a full partner in combating it. The Review Conference has provided a platform for a new beginning.

The few States that chose to stay away should evaluate the Outcome Document on its own merit and substance.Many of them were part of the emerging consensus up until the very eve of the Review Conference.This is why I am hopeful and indeed expectant that, at the earliest opportunity, they will rejoin international efforts to combat racism as mapped out by the Outcome Document and implement its provisions.I invite you to help in this effort.

Most certainly, the advancement of the human rights agenda requires building solid and expanded partnerships.The challenges we face today are towering.They range from chronic situations to rapidly unfolding emergencies, including the recent food shortages, global recession, epidemics and natural calamities, such as the earthquake that struck L’Aquila.

These partnerships often begin at the domestic level through the initiative or the support of national human rights institutions (NHRIs), as well as civil society.

For those of you who are not yet familiar with the world of NHRIs, let me clarify that these are official bodies that work independently from governments to promote and protect human rights at the national level.The main normative source for these bodies, are the “Paris Principles,” approved by the UN General Assembly in 1993, which establish the minimum standards that NHRIs should comply with to function effectively.These include independence, pluralism, a broad mandate to protect and promote human rights, accessibility, functional and structural autonomy, effective interaction with civil society and the international human rights system, and ideally, powers to handle cases of human rights violations.

The debate on the creation of a NHRI in Italy dates back to the early 2000s, but no such institution has been put in place thus far.It has been argued that stable democracies do not need NHRIs because checks and balances on human rights are provided by a plethora of other institutions.Yet, since no country enjoys a pristine human rights record, NHRIs represent indispensible conveyor belts between government and civil society and between local, national and international human rights systems.  This is proved by the fact that today there are more than 100 NHRIs worldwide.Those that are deemed in line with the Paris Principles are conferred “A status” by their peers and enjoy special standing at the international level in recognition of their legitimacy and effectiveness.

These institutions facilitate a better understanding and a more expeditious absorption of international law into domestic legislation.They typically help spot weak links in the national protection system and help devise appropriate measures and necessary reforms.  NHRIs are instrumental in connecting the dots between the various initiatives developed at all levels of societal interaction, including in the ever-expanding realm of regional human rights provisions and mechanisms.In order to do so they need a robust mandate in full consonance with the “Paris Principles.”

Over the past decades, my Office has been actively supporting the creation and strengthening of credible and effective NHRIs around the world.  I am convinced that the establishment of an independent NHRI would enable Italy to play a stronger leadership role in human rights in Europe as well as in the international arena. In this respect, I welcome the request from the President of the Human Rights Committee of the Senate, Senator Pietro Marcenaro, to organize a Workshop in late May to discuss in detail the role and features of a NHRI in Italy with parliamentarians, government representatives and civil society organizations. My Office will be in touch to assist in making the best use of this opportunity.

Let me conclude by noting that when Italy leads on human rights, its advocacy and guidance inspire international campaigns.This is indeed the case regarding efforts for the abolition of the death penalty.And this is also the case regarding the campaign for the prevention of female genital mutilation which Italy launched alongside UN agencies.

Moreover and crucially, Italy has firmly put combating violence against women on the agenda of the G8.Italy was instrumental in ensuring that this issue was featured in the G8 summit’s conclusions which explicitly defined it as a violation of human rights and, in some circumstances, as a war crime and a crime against humanity.Those conclusions reasserted women’s essential role in peace processes and economic and social development, as well as the need to promote gender equality.

In attaining these common goals, as well as in confronting human rights challenges, my Office stands ready to support Italy and its vibrant civil society.I look forward to cooperating with Italian Parliamentarians in advancing a demanding, but exciting agenda.Mine is thus an “Arrivederci a presto.”

Thank you.