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Statement by Ms. Louise Arbour United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the closure of the 61st session of the Commission on Human Rights

22 April 2005

Mr. Chairman, Members of the Commission,
Distinguished Colleagues, Friends,

A closure is an appropriate occasion for reflection and for preparing for the future. Even after six intense weeks, your task – our task – is by no means complete. Our responsibility to ensure the effective enjoyment of all human rights by everyone cannot be reduced to a 28-day annual effort

A closure is also the occasion to express gratitude. I would like to begin my comments in such a manner.

First, Mr. Chairman, I pay tribute to you and to the Bureau for the skillful, dignified manner in which you have steered this session. I cannot help but conclude that it was I who benefited the most from the pact we made in mid-March to help each other see our way through our first experience of the Commission.

I would also like to acknowledge my colleagues: my Deputy, Ms. Khan Williams, the secretariat of the Commission, and all the staff of the Office of the High Commissioner, whether in Geneva or elsewhere around the world. They demonstrate a truly inspiring commitment to the United Nations Charter and to its ideals.

I also thank those in conference services, translators, interpreters, précis writers and security for the professionalism and unflagging industry that they have demonstrated these past six weeks.

Distinguished delegates, let me state unequivocally my gratitude for the support my colleagues and I have received from you. Your acknowledgement of our work and your commitment to providing critically needed additional resources are greatly welcomed. We are aware of the responsibility and trust you place in us and we are determined to fulfill it, as ever, to the best of our abilities.

Mr. Chairman,

I have found this forum to be both a source of encouragement and a cause for concern.

There can be no doubt as to the great and pressing need for an inter-governmental mechanism by which to examine the key human rights issues and concerns of the day, one which allows for a vigorous and broad debate, including from non-governmental parties.

The positives have been many.

The Commission was again attended by over 3000 participants and the High-Level Segment attracted a record 88 dignitaries: its relevance is clear.

This year, as in past, the mere sitting of the Commission has encouraged active steps to address situations of human rights concern at home. That is a considerable testament to the significance of this body.

The meetings, even on traditionally difficult issues, have seen discussions more positive and constructive in tone than had perhaps previously been the case.

Many statements have affirmed the centrality of human rights in the United Nations system, reflecting the thrust of the Secretary-General’s recent reform report.

Several new resolutions have helped advance our understanding and commitment to the rule of law as an indispensable pre-requisite for the protection of human rights. I think, in particular, of those on transitional justice; the right to truth; and the protection of the human rights of civilians in armed conflicts.

In this context, I also acknowledge your efforts to reach a consensus on the issue of protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism and your decision to appoint a Special Rapporteur on this matter.

Also worth noting, after 15 years and numerous consultations, are the adoption of the ‘Basic principles and guidelines on the right to a remedy and reparation for victims of gross violations of international human rights law and serious violations of international humanitarian law’, as well as the completion of the updated Set of Principles for the protection and promotion of human rights through action to combat impunity.

Many statements affirmed the need to further develop the vital work of the special procedures and concrete proposals to that end have been put forward.

This session saw the creation of several new Special Procedures mandates: the Independent Expert on human rights and international solidarity; the Independent Expert on minorities; the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on human rights and transnational corporations; and the Working Group on mercenaries.

But against this, I note one overriding concern. Simply put, the Commission’s ability to address issues of human rights concern at the national level is demonstrably deficient.

There is something fundamentally wrong, and obscure, with a system in which the decision as to whether or not a country situation is addressed under Item 9, Item 19 or Item 3, or not at all, is viewed either as a political triumph or a political defeat.

There is something fundamentally wrong with a system in which the question of the violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms in any part of the world is answered only by reference to four states.

I put it to you that it is a discredit to this Commission to view these decisions as political victories or losses. I say this in the full knowledge, and with all due respect for the fact that yours is an inter-governmental body. To suggest it should be apolitical is somewhat akin to criticizing spring for coming after winter.

But political considerations should not be allowed to by-pass entirely the substance of the work entrusted to the Commission.

The fact that only four states were singled out does not make them less answerable for the human rights situations in their countries. But, equally, a reasonable person might ask whether it is really so that only four countries merited scrutiny by this Commission when it considered the question of the violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms in any part of the world.

It is in this context that I commend to you the concept of peer review. It is this idea that underpins the Secretary-General’s recommendation that this body be refined, improved and heightened in stature as the new Human Right Council. The space is there, now, for its creation: the status quo on this issue is not a credible option.

Clearly, there should always remains the capacity and means for states to raise concern in instances of grave human rights emergencies. And, equally clearly, doing so is fraught with dangers of selectivity and politicization. I simply suggest, however, that were it to be done against a backdrop of universal scrutiny, those dangers might be minimized.

As you have now agreed to reflect coherently on the recommendations of the Secretary-General through an open-ended Working Group in June, I am confident that you will embark on this exercise fully committed to the enhancement of human rights worldwide.

I shall conclude by referring briefly to my Office’s plans for the future.

On 20 May, I intend to submit to the Secretary-General a plan of action for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, as he requested me to do in his report, “In larger freedom”. In making this request, the Secretary-General acknowledged our expanded role in such areas as crisis response, national human rights capacity building, support for the Millennium Development Goals and conflict prevention. He also underlined our limited means of addressing these and the other human rights challenges that we face today.

We have sought your views on how best we might respond to this call and I urge you to contribute to our efforts.

The plan of action will have at its core the following three concepts, each with implications for the future work and outstanding needs of the Office of the High Commissioner.

First, that human rights are universal and indivisible. We will need to ensure that we address the entire gamut of rights in our work with member states and that we have an adequate capacity to do so.

Second, that states remain the primary actors in the field of human rights. Strengthening national systems for the full protection of rights must be at the center of our work. This will require my Office to engage with you more systematically with a view to providing whatever assistance might be required.

Finally, that central to our work, as I said at the outset of this session of the Commission, must be the implementation of rights. We must build on our collective experiences, pool our expertise, and work to ensure the full protection of all rights, for everyone, everywhere.

The High Commissioner for Human Rights is mandated to promote and protect the effective enjoyment by all, of all civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. The adjective is key. I intend to submit to the Secretary-General a clear articulation of how I might better seek to fulfil that responsibility. I am confident that I can count on your support.