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Prioritising Human Rights

Launching her Office’s latest yearly report on its human rights work around the world, the 2008 Report on Activities and Results, High Commissioner Navi Pillay called 2008 a “landmark year for the human rights community,” pointing to a number of significant institutional reforms, new international legal instruments and a series of historic milestones, among them the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights presents its 2008 annual report to member States - OHCHRAs the organisation with the lead responsibility for implementing the UN’s human rights programme, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has assumed an increasingly important role globally.

Pillay pointed out, however, that all of this work comes at a cost. The Office has continued to expand its activities as required by the Council and in response to emergencies in many different parts of the world. Funding for this work comes mostly from Member States who are struggling to maintain budgets because of unprecedented financial uncertainty.

Last year was a record for donations to the work of the office but acknowledging serious fund-raising challenges, Pillay has appealed to the international community to continue giving priority to human rights. “There cannot be a worse time for the United Nations to scale back its human rights activities as the economic crisis is endangering the livelihoods and rights of millions of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable,” she said.

“I appeal to all Member States to ensure that sufficient resources are made available to allow my Office to continue its work at a level commensurate with the challenges that lie before us.”

More than half of OHCHR’s staff are now employed in the field. In addition, OHCHR supports the work of human rights components in peace missions. By December last year OHCHR had 52 field presences - 20 field offices, 15 human rights advisers deployed in UN country teams and 17 human rights teams working within UN peace missions.

The work of OHCHR human rights officers in the field contributes to many human rights advances. These are some of those achieved last year;

  • 16 countries introduced or approved new human rights-related laws or legislative amendments, following advice and technical assistance from OHCHR
  • Human rights guarantees were written into the draft constitution of Bolivia and in the new constitution adopted in the Maldives.
  • Conditions in prisons were improved in Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti and southern Sudan following OHCHR intervention.
  • Advocacy secured the release of several illegally detained persons and appeals were lodged against a number of death sentences.
  • In Afghanistan, a strengthened Special Investigations Team was created within the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission to examine cases of civilian casualties.
  • In Indonesia, a provisional joint programme of support for Indonesia’s three national human rights institutions was developed.
  • In Georgia, the Public Defender adopted a strategy for planning and managing human rights awareness-raising campaigns, with the assistance of OHCHR.
  • In Montenegro, the Government’s decision to accept responsibility and settle claims from families of 83 Bosnian nationals who disappeared in 1992 settled one of the major outstanding humanitarian law violations stemming from the wars of the 1990’s.
  • Around eleven thousand police and other law enforcement personnel were trained in human rights principles and standards by OHCHR in 2008. Training was also given to the staff of human rights institutions, judges, parliamentarians, civil servants, civil society activists and others.

In 2008, the Human Rights Council with the support of OHCHR began its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process. UPR involves a review of the human rights records of all 192 UN Member States once every four years. By the end of the year, 48 countries had been assessed. The UPR reminds States of their responsibility to fully respect and implement all human rights and fundamental freedoms. Its ultimate aim is to improve the human rights situation in all countries and address human rights violations wherever they occur. The High Commissioner’s Office supports the efforts of the holders of special procedures’ mandates, the human rights experts who without remuneration or monetary reward of any kind, investigate and report on alleged human rights violations from a thematic or country-specific perspective. Because of their expertise and ability to move quickly to areas of concern, these mandate holders are central to the protection and promotion of human rights round the world.

Last year they went on 53 missions and provided the Council with 135 reports.

These are just a few of their achievements;

  • The Working Group on mercenaries after consultations in the Eastern European and Central Asian region is recommending the adoption of a new international convention on the regulation of private military and security companies.
  • The Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief expressed concerns at the continued existence of the common law offence of blasphemy in the United Kingdom. Mid 2008 new laws came into force abolishing the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel.
  • The Special Rapporteur on the right of food warned in 2006 that the building of the Ilisu Dam in Turkey would displace and impoverish more than 50 thousand Kurdish people and flood the ten thousand year old town of Hasankeyf. Late last year the German, Austrian and Swiss governments announced their withdrawal from the project.
  • Complaints from more than two thousand individuals were followed up in communications with various governments.

More Member States ratified international human rights treaties and instruments. There were a hundred ratifications, up from 63 the year before.

2008 will be remembered for the global celebrations of the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “The vigour, imagination, dedication and variety of community-based initiatives, nation-wide commemorations, regional gatherings and international campaigns celebrating the Universal Declaration stand as testimonies that its vision and relevance matter as much today as they did 60 years ago,” Pillay said.

The 60th Anniversary was one of a number of milestones commemorated during the year.

The Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities came into force offering millions of people additional protections and guarantees of their human rights.

And for many human rights campaigners 2008 finally saw an historic imbalance righted when a complaints mechanism for the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was adopted. In so doing, the two fundamental human rights’ Covenants, one governing economic, social and cultural rights, the other, civil and political rights have equal legal and moral standing in the international community.

There was a change of leadership in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights with Navi Pillay taking over from Louise Arbour.

The new High Commissioner brings to the post direct experience of living with a regime that explicitly denied a majority of the population full enjoyment of its human rights. Pillay, a South African began her career as a front-line, grassroots lawyer who belonged to the non-white minority. Later, she served as a judge on two of the most important international criminal courts of the modern era, spending eight years with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, including four years as its President, and then the past five years on the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

In her foreword to the Report, Pillay referring to the vision of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, “This vision contemplates a world where civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights are realized without distinction. This is a world in which every man, woman and child lives in dignity, free from hunger, protected from violence and discrimination, and enjoys the benefits of housing, health care, education and opportunity. This vision, in my view, represents the global culture of human rights that we strive for, and it should be a unifying rather than a divisive force, within and among all cultures.”

19 May 2009