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Global shifts in human rights create new opportunities

“The collective actions of the people of North Africa and the Middle East have reaffirmed the importance and universality of human rights in a way we could not have dreamed of on 1 January this year,” UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay said to the Geneva press corps. “We all want, we all deserve, and we are all entitled to have our rights observed – not partially, not sometimes, not at the whim of dictators or other repressive rulers and authorities, but all of us, all of the time, everywhere.”

UN Human Rights Chief, Navi Pillay, addressing the press in Geneva © UN Photo/ Jean-Marc Ferré

Pillay highlighted that these universal aspirations were the key message of the Arab Spring which had been heard all across the world and produced important shifts, including in the UN human rights system.

The High Commissioner noted that in the past six months, the Human Rights Council had set up three major fact finding missions or Commissions of Inquiry, to investigate allegations of gross human rights violations in Lybia, Cote d’Ivoire and Syria. The UN Human Rights office for the first time ever, she added, was now in a position to set up a presence in North African countries in the Mediterranean by establishing country offices in Tunisia and Egypt.

In addition, the Human Rights Council passed a ground-breaking resolution recognizing the discrimination and violence inflicted on individuals because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and called for a study to document their plight.

In Latin America, a number of countries have sought an end to impunity and provided reparations for serious crimes committed during past dictatorships or military regimes.

All these and more developments along with the worldwide attention being given to human rights were heartening, Pillay said. She added her Office would do its utmost to fulfil the expectations placed on it, but she noted that “resources have been extremely stretched.”

“When I look at the amount of money being invested in human rights, I start to wonder how deep the commitment goes. Of the UN Secretariat’s regular assessed budget of over USD 5.1 billion, a mere 2.8 per cent is devoted to human rights, even though human rights is one of the “Three Pillars” of the UN, alongside peace and security, and development,” she said. For her office, “that translates as around 70.5 million dollars per year in 2010 and 2011, and comprises 35 per cent of our total budget.”

In 2010, voluntary contributions to the UN Human Rights office by States and other donors had only amounted to USD 109 million, some USD 11 million less than what was actually spent. This year, because of the increased need, extra-budgetary requirements will be USD 150 million. Over the past two years, the total annual budget – both regular and extra-budgetary – for the UN Human Rights office amounted to USD 202 million per year.

“It is reportedly about the same amount as Australians spend on Easter eggs. It is about the same as the cost of three F-16 jet-fighters. It is one 50th of the 2010 cinema box office revenues in the United States; and the amount Europeans spent on their pets in 2010 alone (Euros 56.8 billion) would fund the entire UN human rights system, including my office, for something like 250 years,” Pillay noted.

Pillay also called on States, in the longer term, to devote much more to making human rights a reality. “There are many activities that we should be doing which we cannot begin to contemplate under current budgetary constraints. Surely it makes sense to invest more heavily in human rights, and to back those brave protestors and human rights defenders in the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere with much more than praise and fine words,” she said.

30 June 2011