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Human Rights Council 17th Session Opening Statement by Ms. Navi Pillay United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

Geneva, 30 May 2011

Mr. President,
Distinguished Members of the Human Rights Council,
Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Mr. President, we meet at a moment of enormous historical importance, when people across the Middle East, North Africa and beyond are rising up to demand their fundamental civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. When popular protests began erupting earlier this year in North Africa and the Middle East, it was quickly dubbed “the Arab Spring”, a phrase which captured intense optimism and appeared to herald a new era of freedom and hope. People, especially the young, peacefully gathered and often at great personal risk, raised a banner demanding dignity, equity, and justice, or, in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “freedom from fear and want.”

Their calls spread from village to village, country to country, and across the globe by email and text message and social media, in one of the most powerful examples of the exercise of the right to free expression that we have seen in decades.

Their uprising was a result of decades of denial of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, as well as the right to development. Political repression, corruption, deprivation, exclusion, inequity and indignity had marred the realization of these rights. In some cases, this was so even where narrow macroeconomic development indicators painted a relatively positive picture. And yet the structural denial of rights was long left to fester unaddressed, while focus was directed instead to narrow notions of economic growth, foreign investment, and “national security”. In most cases, governments benefitted from international development support, with no or little consideration of human rights. In the end, it was the desperate reaction of a young man in Tunisia to the humiliating denial of his most basic rights and remedies that sparked this historic turn of events.

Excellencies,

The promising first steps taken by some countries in addressing the calls for change, including initiation of important reforms long-promised, are welcome and should be further encouraged. The focus however must remain on addressing the range of issues that first brought the people to the streets. In Tunisia, positive steps have been taken by the Transitional Government, ranging from allowing freedom of expression, to improving the rule of law and promoting social and economic rights. Likewise, important reforms are being undertaken in Egypt, including the dismantling of the infamous State Security Intelligence, as well as the introduction of important constitutional amendments which would enable freer elections, a new law governing political parties, and measures to reinforce freedom of association. Earlier this year, Algeria lifted the state of emergency which had prevailed for 19 long years and a process of consultations on constitutional reforms has also been initiated. In Morocco, King Mohammed VI announced constitutional reforms, including the consolidation of the rule of law, the strengthening of the human rights system, and the broadening of individual and collective liberties. And in Jordan, King Abdullah II has established a commission to review the constitution. It is critical that all these steps be promptly pursued in a participatory manner, including with youth and women, leading to concrete measures and effective reforms.

However, Mr. President, as spring turns to summer, we are feeling the heat of the terrible events in some parts of the region, as we continue to witness legitimate claims being met with repression and extreme violence by forces determined to extend the dark winter.

The brutality and magnitude of measures taken by the Governments in Libya and now Syria have been particularly shocking in their outright disregard for basic human rights. Heavy handed repression of protests, including the use of lethal force, in Bahrain and Yemen.

The Human Rights Council will have interactive dialogues on Libya, including with the Commission of Inquiry on Libya, and my Office will also present to you a report on the situation in both Libya and Syria. I urge the Government of Syria to respond to my request to dispatch a fact-finding mission, as assigned to me by the Human Rights Council. Further to my request, the Government of Yemen has accepted a visit by OHCHR in late June. And the Government of Bahrain has just responded last week to my request to send a mission to the country, with dates and terms of reference to be agreed upon by the Government and my Office. These visits are very important for my Office’s engagement.

Resort to lethal or excessive force against peaceful demonstrators not only violates fundamental rights, including the right to life, but serves to exacerbate tensions and tends to breed a culture of violence. The appropriate response is for the authorities to engage in a national, inclusive dialogue to address protestors’ legitimate demands. Repression will not put an end to the inexorable aspiration of people who are legitimately claiming their rights, and demanding the construction of a state that will seek to protect and serve them rather than the exclusive interests of those governing.

Excellencies,

Experience shows that democratic transition is incomplete if it fails to include appropriate institutional reforms, including transitional justice processes, which are indispensable for the proper functioning of a democratic system, primarily an independent and impartial judiciary, effective national human rights institutions, and security forces which are subjected to civilian oversight, so that they act as guarantors of the rule of law. Failure to adequately strengthen new institutions tends to lead not only to impunity for past human rights violations but to further violations, corruption and organized crime. For example, in Latin America, such decisions were made decades ago during critical transition periods in some countries taking what may have been perceived as easier options of consigning the past to the past through the passing of sweeping amnesty laws. Addressing the legacy of years of systemic State abuses remains an uphill struggle as shown by the most recent failure of the Uruguayan lower house of parliament to finally abrogate the 1986 Expiry Law, which shields perpetrators of international crimes committed during military rule from prosecution and had been ruled to be unconstitutional by Uruguay's Supreme Court. But suspects of serious crimes cannot escape justice, as was shown last week with the arrests of Ratko Mladic in Serbia and Bernard Munyagishari in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

History further highlights that democracy cannot be constructed without the active contribution of civil society and the media which can express itself freely and act as a genuine watchdog in respect of governmental action.

Sustainable transition also requires an end to impunity and ensuring accountability. It is key that a comprehensive approach to transitional justice which addresses all serious recent and past human rights violations, seeks accountability, and respects the rights of victims to remedy and reparations, is adopted early on in the transition period to achieve reconciliation. There are a number of different models and good practices and lessons learnt that can be useful in that process.

Mr. President,

My Office has been engaging with a number of States in the struggle to end impunity.

From 2 to 9 April, ASG Šimonović conducted a mission to Côte d’Ivoire, in the midst of the crisis. On 13 April, I participated in the Security Council, underlining that reconciliation will not be accomplished without meaningful accountability, which has been lacking in Côte d’Ivoire over the past decade. The International Commission of Inquiry on Côte d’Ivoire mandated by the Human Rights Council will also present its findings during this session. I urge you to examine carefully its recommendations and consider actions aimed at breaking the cycle of impunity, bringing the perpetrators to justice, rehabilitating victims to reclaim their rights and dignity, and ensuring sustainable reconciliation.

ASG Šimonović equally undertook a mission to Afghanistan in March this year, where, amongst other issues, he stressed the importance, especially during the transition process, of enabling and supporting the participation of civil society, including women, to ensure an inclusive and lasting peace based on justice and respect for human rights. He is also currently in Iraq, to engage on my behalf with the authorities in particular to further the protection of civilians as well as to raise conditions of detention and the situation of minorities.

The Deputy High Commissioner conducted a mission to Nepal from 18 to 21 April, where she was informed of recent progress under the peace process and assured of the Government’s commitment to establish transitional justice mechanisms. Addressing the claims of thousands of conflict victims who continue to seek truth and justice remains a priority. OHCHR remains committed to support the Government and people of Nepal and we have therefore requested the Government to extend the mandate of my office for another two years.

While welcoming the overall peaceful and fair conduct of the referendum on the independence of South Sudan, I am alarmed at the continued violence in various parts of Sudan. The continued conflict in Darfur, the clashes between the SPLA and armed militia groups in Southern Sudan and in particular, the tension and military stand-off in Abyei area are of grave concern, not least due to the serious implications for peace and human rights. As the Secretary-General has urged, the CPA partners, the Government of Sudan and the Government of Southern Sudan, should reach an agreement on post-referendum arrangements, including Abyei, expeditiously and in the same spirit of cooperation. The Deputy High Commissioner also plans on a mission to Sudan later this month.

In March, I visited Senegal and Guinea, and equally prioritized the struggle against impunity. In Guinea, in this context, I commended the national authorities for their commitment to establish a truth and reconciliation commission and a national human rights commission. In Senegal, the Government was encouraged, in close cooperation with the African Union, to expedite the legal process against Hissein Habré.

During my mission to Mauritania in April, while expressing support for efforts made so far by the Government, I also encouraged it to fight against impunity for human rights violations including through the settlement of past human rights violations known as “passif humanitaire” and to work towards the elimination of slavery, slave-like practices and vestiges of slavery. I also urged the release of twelve women rape victims who have been imprisoned.

I should add that during all my missions, including to Norway in May, I stress the importance of ensuring effective implementation of UPR recommendations.

My Office also continues to engage with the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo on accountability, and I would like to commend their openness to follow-up on the Mapping Report of the most serious violations of human rights committed in the DRC between 1993 and 2003. In particular, the Government’s initiative to establish a Special Chamber composed of national and international judges to prosecute the perpetrators of international crimes committed in the DRC is very welcome. They are encouraged to amend the current draft law to meet international standards, as well as to embark on a comprehensive approach to transitional justice encompassing justice, truth, reparations and institutional reform. The rights of victims of sexual violence to remedy and reparations must also be advanced in practical ways.

Let me also refer to the report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on accountability in Sri Lanka, which concludes that there are credible allegations of a wide range of serious violations of international law committed by both the Sri Lankan Government forces and Tamil Tigers in the final stages of the conflict. It is incumbent on the Government to investigate these allegations and I also urge it to implement the measures recommended by the Panel. I fully support the recommendation to establish an international mechanism to monitor national investigations and undertake its own as necessary. It would be important for the Human Rights Council to reflect on the new information contained in this important report, in light of its previous consideration of Sri Lanka and efforts to combat impunity worldwide.

Excellencies,

Indeed, there are important lessons to be learned from both distant and recent history, in addressing root causes effectively, and properly managing the response particularly during the transition periods. This in turn compels us to seriously review how negative developments can be prevented altogether, or before they degenerate into the serious human rights violations which we are witnessing in some countries. And these lessons have to be learned globally.

The images of protests in the Middle East and North Africa recall those in Iran in 2009, where a broad-based opposition movement was harshly suppressed following the elections. Over the past year, the crackdown on opposition activists in that country has broadened to a wider group of independent lawyers, human rights activists, journalists and artists as a response to their work in defence of the rights of others. I will be addressing these concerns when I have the opportunity to take up the Government’s invitation to visit Iran.
And the situation in the occupied Palestinian territory remains of serious concern. I should like to note that I was disturbed by reports on events that transpired on 15 May when Palestinians commemorate “Nakba Day.” I would like to remind the Government of Israel of its obligation to ensure that its security forces avoid the use of excessive force against civilians.

Increased restrictions on freedom of expression in China are concerning, as is the situation in Vietnam, where criticism has grown on corruption and other economic and social issues. In Myanmar, where there has been long-standing and comprehensive suppression of freedom of expression and assembly, the new Government has yet to lift draconian laws and release more than two thousand political prisoners. The human rights situation in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, from which very little information emerges due to the absence of independent media and suppression of the freedom expression, is also deeply troubling.

Developments in Belarus are also worrisome, especially with respect to the harsh and disproportionate treatment of political dissent as well as harassment of human rights groups and media since the elections last December. I have voiced these concerns in the past few months and urge Belarus to open up to greater human rights scrutiny. In Uganda, the repression of protests, which have been taking place since the beginning of the year is also worrying. In particular, the excessive use of force against protestors and reports of ill-treatment of opposition politicians during the recent "Walk 2 Work" protests which has resulted in the death of more than 8 people and injured 250 since 11 April are cause for concern.

Excellencies,
Recent events in North Africa in particular once more demonstrate the continuing vulnerability of migrants. In Libya many migrants have been accused of being mercenaries and subjected to violence and discrimination; they have faced unimaginable suffering while stranded between borders; they have fallen prey to traffickers and other criminal gangs; and many have been compelled to make dangerous journeys, including in crowded and unsafe boats, in search of protection. Even as they make such journeys, in desperation and hope, they are often met with what can be life-threatening interdiction, detention, rejection and xenophobia. I thus welcome the Council of Europe’s call for comprehensive investigations into very troubling allegations that North African migrants in sinking boats were abandoned to their fate despite the alleged ability of European units in the vicinity to rescue them. If ships are not responding to calls of assistance, it is not only human beings who are dying, but with them also our profound attachment to human rights, and to what must be our universal recognition that all human beings are equal. The situation of migrants in Mexico, who have been subjected to abductions and killings in high numbers, mostly by organised crime networks, is also of serious concern. I will be on mission to Mexico in early July, and look forward to the opportunity to discuss these issues with the Government.

I am also concerned over the rhetoric of recent months, in Italy and France in particular, to depict migrants as a singular problem best offloaded elsewhere. The narrow reflex response, both across the European Schengen area generally and in individual States such as Denmark, to move to reintroduce internal controls and regulation of flows of goods or persons across the area as a response to the current crisis misses the real challenge: to work together to ensure respect for all persons’ rights, wherever situated and however they may have arrived.

While in Australia last week, I visited immigration detention centres and met with representatives of migrant, refugee and asylum seeker communities. The urgent need for Australia to develop alternatives to the current hardline and unsustainable immigration detention policies, as well as to effectively counter new forms of racism and Islamophobia emerging in this multicultural society, is striking. I should add that while in Australia, I also had the priviledge of visiting Aboriginal communities in Northern Territory and Queensland, where I learned first hand about the discrimination and disadvantages facing indigenous peoples, as well as about policy challenges for the Government in addressing them. The unique identify of Aboriginal people deserves Constitutional recognition, and with it better protection in law and practice would follow.

It is important to remember that the onus of hosting migrants, refugees and other displaced persons fleeing the turmoil in North Africa continues to fall disproportionately on countries in that region. It is time for all countries facing these challenges, including countries in the European Union to show effective support in full respect of their international obligations. It is not enough to outsource the problem away from the borders of Europe or elsewhere. It is important to take into account the long-term human rights issues exposed by events in the Middle East and North Africa, not merely to respond through tighter border control and containment measures. And in this context, I urge States to work together to enable proper and genuine development of the concerned countries which would include a thorough consideration of human rights compliance by all parties. Regional and bilateral engagements must have human rights as one of their building-blocks. This surely is an important lesson for all of us to have learned.

Mr. President,

Allow me to end with a few words on some important initiatives advanced this year.

The Geneva leg of the HRC Review concluded in March, and while not all hoped-for gains may have been achieved, the HRC should be commended for its recent record of having reacted so promptly to serious human rights concerns globally, in Cote d’Ivoire, Libya and Syria. On 10 May, ASG Šimonović delivered a statement on my behalf to the Security Council during its Open Debate on the Protection of Civilians, and in fact we used this occasion to update the Security Council on progress made in implementing key decisions of the Human Rights Council on Cote d'Ivoire, Libya, and Syria, and OHCHR's actions in this regard.

Such an actively engaged Human Rights Council should remain our joint objective, and this path must not only be consolidated, but pursued with determination. New ways and approaches should be found and all human rights situations should be addressed, to ensure that in several years from now, no voices will claim that the Council should have been fairer, deeper or faster in its handling of critical human rights situations.

And some important reflections are needed as the second cycle of the UPR commences. Firstly, the international community, including the Council and OHCHR, should set up a proper and efficient follow-up process to the numerous recommendations made during the first UPR reviews. Secondly, and somewhat more importantly, the Council should look into the contents of the UPR reviews. At times, and as illustrated through the recent crises in North Africa, it is concerning that the report of the UPR working groups were at actual odds with the reality on the ground, even if the UPR was at that stage only at its infancy. Questions and recommendations should match the expectations and reality of people on the ground. This is a historic responsibility for all of us. You can continue fully to rely on OHCHR’s support in your important endeavors to bring the full potential of the UPR to bear.

Mr. President,

It is also now well over one year since I called upon all stakeholders to initiate a process of reflection on ways to strengthen the treaty body system. Eighteen months later, it is satisfying that we have come a long way as several consultations have taken place among different actors, including treaty bodies’ experts, national human rights institutions and civil society, and most recently with States on 12 and 13 May in Sion. The outcomes of these consultations have resulted in many and varied proposals, represented in the Dublin, Marrakesh, Poznan and Seoul statements, submissions from NGOs, and in the report on the Sion meeting. The process has revealed that the treaty body system is facing some dilemmas, namely specificity versus harmonization and efficiency/savings versus impact, against the backdrop of an expanding treaty body system coupled with the financial crisis. Your further contributions on this important matter are welcome, as OHCHR finalizes the report compiling the various suggestions made throughout this process. At this session, you will also have before you the proposal to adopt a new Optional Protocol on the CRC, which is very much welcome and further underscores the need to continue working together to strengthen the system whose effectiveness must match its normative expansion.

Finally, Mr. President, it would be remiss not to mention important anniversaries celebrated this year. OHCHR has embarked on numerous activities to mark this year’s 25th anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Right to Development. And our programme of activities to mark the International Year for People of African Descent is fully underway. As you will also know, the International Year coincides with another important event in the sphere of combating racism and racial discrimination: the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action. Under the auspices of the President of the General Assembly, the Assembly will meet at the level of Heads of State and Government in September. OHCHR has been working in close contact with the office of the Assembly to make this event a success. These anniversaries are focused on some of the most critical human rights issues of our time, and therefore deserve the full engagement of all.

With these words, Mr. President, I take this final opportunity to thank you for all the efforts you have made in successfully steering the HRC through such an eventful and historical year.

Thank you.