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Human rights chief highlights Office’s priorities

Navi Pillay, who has just completed her first year at the helm of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), highlighted main priority areas for the her Office in a keynote address to the Human Rights Council in Geneva on 15 September.

The 12th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva - UN PHOTO/Jess Hoffman“No country in the world can claim to be free of human rights violations,” the High Commissioner named 47 different countries and territories from all across the world and drew attention to a wide array of human rights concerns, ranging from discrimination, abuses in armed conflicts and impunity, violations of economic, social and cultural rights, the treatment of migrants, and the suppression of free voice which often leads to the persecution of human rights defenders.

The UN human rights chief said there were “huge gaps” between the “lofty pledges” made by states and the realities of daily life for many of their inhabitants, underscoring that governments have the primary responsibility to address these gaps by “giving full effect” to international human rights standards.

“Eliminating discrimination is a duty of the highest order. No country is immune from this scourge,” she said, pointing out that the grounds of discrimination are many and multifaceted.

“Our main objective is to help promote discrimination-free societies and a world of equal treatment for all.” The High Commissioner announced that the fundamental principle of non-discrimination will be the leading theme of a sustained outreach effort of OHCHR.
On abuses in armed conflicts, Pillay issued a strong call to governments to combat impunity for crimes committed during both international and internal armed conflicts, and in particular those directed against civilians.

“I urge the international community, including this Council, to insist on full accountability for all violations and to ensure assistance to the victims,” she said. “I also urge all those states contributing to military operations, whether it be in their own country or in other countries, to enhance their efforts to prevent civilian casualties….”

The High Commissioner also emphasized the need to protect economic, social and cultural rights and encouraged governments to promptly sign and ratify the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

“A child excluded from primary school because of school fees, a woman paid less than her male colleague for the same work, a family forcibly evicted from their home, a man left to starve when food stocks lie unused—these are all instances of individuals denied their economic, social and cultural rights. 

“Promotion and protection of these rights are imperative, particularly against the backdrop of the economic recession that has severely affected the most vulnerable,” she said.

The treatment of migrants is, Pillay said, “one of the most serious human rights problems in our world today” citing the numerous deaths at sea, and the increasing tendency of states, as well as passing ships, to treat imperiled boats of migrants as “dangerous waste” rather than as human beings in distress.

“States have an obligation to respect, protect and fulfil a wide range of human rights of all individuals under their jurisdiction, including all migrants, regardless of their immigration status,” she said.

Highlighting another area where concerted action is needed, Pillay referred to an “alarming global trend” of governments, or other powerful forces, persecuting or even killing peaceful opponents and critics.

“In too many countries, brave human rights advocates, journalists and dissidents face abduction, arbitrary detention, torture and even death to defend their rights and to defend freedoms and those of the communities they serve or represent,” she said.

Pillay concluded by reiterating her commitment to the “impartiality” and “independence” of her Office. “My goal, and I trust our common goal, is to focus on and protect all human rights for all.”

The 12th session of the Human Rights Council takes place from 14 September to 2 October at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. More information is available on the webpage of the session, which is also webcast live.

15 September 2009