Today we are exactly half way through the year, and I thought this was a good moment to update you on a number of developments, as well as to present some longer-term reflections on the state of human rights around the globe in the light of events that have taken place over the past six tumultuous months.
On 1 January this year, the protests in Tunisia were multiplying, fuelled by the heavy-handed response of the Tunisian government, but President Ben Ali was still in power, and we had little inkling of the extraordinary chain of events that was about to be unleashed across North Africa and the Middle East, and which have reverberated all across the world.
A mere six weeks later, the peoples of Tunisia and Egypt had both risen up in defence of their rights and to everyone’s surprise, not least their own, had succeeded in unseating their long-entrenched and deeply unpopular Presidents, along with many other members of the corrupt and repressive ruling elite. Huge numbers of people in both countries had gone out on to the streets to call for their economic and social rights, as well as their rights to express themselves and to protest, and their rights not to be arbitrarily detained, tortured or killed. And they had prevailed.
The significance of this has been immense. The Middle East and North Africa was one of those areas where we had all been told the people had other preoccupations and were not particularly interested in human rights. Those of us who work in human rights had never believed that particular discourse, but it had nevertheless become deeply rooted, not just within the region but in the mindset of the outside world as well.
Once the Tunisians and Egyptians had blown that myth away, others realized that perhaps they could do the same. Protests spread to Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and finally Syria. Several governments reacted in a violent and repressive fashion, leading to the loss of thousands of lives, torture, arbitrary detention, disappearances and other violations. The situation was different in Jordan, Morocco and Algeria which also experienced protests, but in those countries the Governments have responded with positive reforms.
I also welcome yesterday’s announcements by the King of Bahrain that he is setting up a Royal Commission, composed of experienced international jurists to look into allegations of human rights violations during the events of February and March and “subsequent consequences;” and that he is granting the right to appeal in civilian courts of all decisions taken by the problematic National Safety Court. My staff are currently examining the details of these major developments in Bahrain.
We do not know how all these developments in the region will end, and in Libya and Syria in particular, the scale of violence and numbers of casualties have reached alarming levels and peaceful solutions do not appear to be on the near horizon. As you know, I and my staff have devoted a considerable amount of attention to the situation in these countries and we will continue to do so, while striving simultaneously not to reduce our attention to the human rights situation elsewhere in the world in the process.
We currently have a team on mission in Yemen, and my office’s fact-finding team on Syria, despite being refused access to the country by the Syrian Government, has been working very hard to find various means of gathering information. They have been interviewing Syrian refugees who fled the violence into neighboring countries; they have been able to directly contact eye-witnesses and victims within and outside Syria, including former detainees. They have interviewed victims with bullet wounds and marks that are consistent with torture. They have spoken to soldiers and security officers who have defected. To date, they have conducted more than 150 interviews, reviewed a large amount of video footage and photographs sent directly from eyewitnesses and victims. I have also had a number of direct contacts with the Government, and note their comments. We will continue to gather evidence as best we can, adapting our modus operandi depending on the circumstances. I am confident that when we deliver the final report in September we will have significant findings and recommendations.
I will not disguise the fact that our resources have been extremely stretched by all these developments, as well as situations elsewhere, such as the conflict and large-scale human rights abuses in Cote d’Ivoire, and I will come back to this later.
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. 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.
That is THE message of the Arab Spring, and it is a message that has reverberated all across the world, stimulating discussion and dialogue, and renewed hope in the power of people to realize change. It has also produced some other interesting, unforeseen and important shifts.
One of those has taken place just along the corridors from this briefing room, in the chamber of the Human Rights Council, where on 25 February, a Libyan diplomat stood up in solidarity with the protestors and stated that “the will of the people is invincible, as history has shown.” The resulting vote was unanimous in its condemnation of the violence the Libyan Government was perpetrating against its own people. For the first time, a State’s participation in the Council was suspended, and a Commission of Inquiry was established. Subsequently the Responsibility to Protect doctrine was invoked at the level of the Security Council, the case of Libya was referred to the International Criminal Court and swift action was taken to avert a likely bloodbath in Benghazi and other towns opposed to the Government.
The Arab Spring has, I believe, impacted on the Human Rights Council in other beneficial ways in respect to the eternal tension between politics and human rights principles. Indeed, no fewer than three major Commissions of Inquiry or fact-finding missions were set up by the Council – on Libya, Cote d’Ivoire and Syria -- in the space of nine weeks.
My organization is now in a position to, for the first time ever, set up offices in two North African countries – a country office in Tunis and a regional office in Cairo. Up until now we had had no presence at all in any of the five North African countries on the Mediterranean, and sometimes I have been obstructed in setting up offices there.
In addition, we have seen, for the first time, a Resolution passed by the Human Rights Council which recognizes the discrimination and violence inflicted on individuals because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and requests my office to produce a study to documenting discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity all across the world. Discrimination against these groups is, as you are aware, an issue on which I have placed a special focus and I am delighted to see progress made at the international level after so many years.
The voting patterns in the Council seems tohave changed, with more States apparently prepared to set regional or national interests a little to one side. This is a very healthy development and one which I hope continues to manifest itself in the future. I also hope it is extended to all situations where there are serious human rights violations.
In addition, we see encouraging breakthroughs in a number of Latin American countries, in terms of finally bringing an end to impunity or providing reparations for serious crimes committed during past dictatorships or military regimes. I am, for example, encouraged by recent initiatives taken by Uruguay and Guatemala to put an end to impunity. I commend Uruguay’s President for his decision to issue a decree to allow for the reopening of investigations into human rights violations during the dictatorship; and I also commend the recent capture in Guatemala of a retired general in connection with massacres of indigenous people during the Guatemalan conflict.
I have also noticed more and more countries calling on us for technical assistance, an extremely important facet of our work, which encompasses many long and often arduous processes to create systemic improvements – for example giving assistance to build the capacity of civil society; training police, security services and judiciaries; advising on the drafting of laws and improvements of constitutions. These activities, while generally not especially newsworthy are a vital component in improving human rights and potentially preventing abuses and conflict, and it is heartening to see more countries requesting such assistance from us.
Developments such as these, coupled with the many positive initiatives and actions of the Human Rights Council over the past few months are ones I applaud, and in many cases the follow-up will involve my office, and I pledge that we will do our utmost to fulfil the expectations placed on us.
But at this point I would like to point out a certain disconnect, which has grown starker in recent months.
With the momentous events taking place in the Middle East and North Africa, it has been striking – and heartening – to see how much attention is being given to human rights across the world. The importance of human rights is being proclaimed by politicians in many countries. It is splashed all over newspapers, on our TV screens and on the internet and in social media. We read commentaries about the protests and arrests in Belarus; we see video and photographic evidence starting to emerge revealing what went on during the final months of the war in Sri Lanka, and what is going on now in Syria; we see an important decision to send a new peacekeeping force to Abyei in Sudan, in an effort to halt the violence there.
So the message and the rhetoric are very encouraging in many countries. Yet, 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 percent is devoted to human rights, even though human rights is one of the “Three Pillars” of the UN, alongside peace and security, and development. For OHCHR, that translates as around 70.5 million dollars per year in 2010 and 2011, and comprises 35 percent of our total budget.
In addition, we are not getting what we need through additional voluntary (or “extra-budgetary”) contributions – the second tranche of the overall budget. Last year, for the first time, we had a serious shortfall when our income in voluntary contributions amounted only to USD 109 million, some USD 11 million less than we actually spent.
During the recent session of the Human Rights Council, there were a total of 12 Resolutions which called for additional work on the part of my office, and of other parts of the UN, amounting to some USD 9.3 million – for which no extra resources have so far been provided. This has been an accelerating pattern during recent sessions of the Council: more and more work – which, as I say, I welcome – but almost always with the proviso that the funding must come from “within existing resources.”
This funding should actually come from the UN regular budget, as this is intended for mandated activities of this type. My office should not be asked to do additional work, without being properly funded under the UN regular budget. Instead, at the moment, I am forced to divert part of the un-earmarked money given to us by our donors to be able to proceed with the new mandated activities. This is seriously disruptive in that it means other key activities which we have planned, budgeted and presented to donors are weakened or have to be abandoned altogether.
The situation is threatening to become chronic, with an ever-widening reality gap between the work asked of us and the funds provided to do it. Already, during the first six months of this year I had to dedicate 12 staff to the Commission of Inquiry for Cote d’Ivoire, 13 staff to the Commission of Inquiry for Libya (which has just been extended for a further six months), and 13 staff to the Council-mandated mission looking into human rights violations in Syria.
In addition, the number of independent UN experts and working groups, all of which are serviced by my staff, has risen from 39 (with 51 experts) to 43 (with 66 experts) just in the past two years; and the number of Committees set up to monitor and report on the implementation of international treaties which are assisted by OHCHR has risen from 5 in 2005 (with 74 experts) to 10 in 2011 (with 172 experts). In both cases, but perhaps especially in the case of the Committees (or “Treaty Bodies” as they are officially known), we have not seen a commensurate increase in resources to cope with the extra work.
The Special Procedures experts and the Chairpersons of the Committees are meeting in Geneva this week. I have held talks with a number of them and the shortage of resources to support them, and the way this is hampering their work, is a major preoccupation that comes up again and again. And finally, the work on servicing the Human Rights Council itself has also increased dramatically as a result of the Universal Periodic Review process, which is extremely labour intensive.
My organization, never over-resourced, is stretched to breaking point. In order to carry out the extra work outlined above, I often have to move staff from the jobs they are supposed to be doing. At the best of times, I only have one staff member dedicated to huge issues like migration, trafficking, HIV/AIDs, and human rights education. We have no dedicated capacity to research a whole range of important issues such as children’s rights; juvenile justice; corporate responsibility in relation to activities that impact on indigenous peoples; and the human rights implications of the expansion of new media, including the impact of the great digital divide on marginalized groups. Many of my field presences are understaffed, and so are the Headquarters sections supporting them. During these extraordinary times in North Africa and the Middle East, I have not been able to reinforce the offices dealing with this region.
Our original extra-budgetary total for 2011 – before the Commissions of Inquiry, before the new offices in Tunis and Cairo, and before all the tasks given to my office by the Human Rights Council – stood at around USD 130 million. With all these extra tasks it has already crept up to around USD 150 million, yet the message we are getting from donors is that there will only be between USD 105-110 million available.
Over the past two years our total annual budget – both regular and extra-budgetary – stands at USD 202 million per year. It sounds a lot. But, in reality, it is not. 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.
Earlier this week, I even had to put out a press release pointing out that the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture is having trouble raising the money it needs to provide financial assistance to over 300 projects in more than 65 countries.
I urge states in the short term to fully fund the activities planned for this year, so that we do not have to cut what are already very lean operations, including many legal and training activities that are unglamorous but can play a vital role in enhancing the rule of law and helping prevent human rights crises.
And in the longer term, I ask all States 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.
Learn more about the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/AboutUs/Pages/HighCommissioner.aspx
Click here to visit OHCHR website: http://www.ohchr.org
For more information or media requests, please contact spokesperson Rupert Colville (+41 22 917 9767 / firstname.lastname@example.org) or press officers Ravina Shamdasani (+ 41 22 917 9310 / email@example.com) and Xabier Celaya (+ 41 22 917 9383 / firstname.lastname@example.org).
UN Human Rights, follow us on social media: