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Human Rights Council opens twenty-first session and hears address by the United Nations Secretary-General

MORNING

10 September 2012

Also Hears Update by the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Activities of her Office

The Human Rights Council this morning opened its twenty-first regular session, hearing an address by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and an update by High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on the activities of her Office, followed by a general debate.

Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations Secretary-General, commended the Council for its response to recent crises and situations encountered by countries in a period of challenges and change, adding that the Council must respond to all human rights violations in an even-handed manner, without disproportionately emphasizing any one situation over another. The Secretary-General remained deeply troubled by the deteriorating situation in Syria and urged all to unite behind the diplomatic efforts of the Joint Special Representative of the United Nations and the League of Arab States Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi. Further, he encouraged the Council to maintain its vigilance on Syria, including on the question of accountability, which was necessary to ensure that anyone who committed war crimes, crimes against humanity or other violations of international human rights or humanitarian law was brought to justice.

Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that numerous human rights challenges continued to persist and preoccupy the Office: poverty, impunity, armed conflicts, refugee flows, discrimination, religious intolerance, arbitrary executions, and the impact of the pervasive economic and financial crisis. The High Commissioner said she was gravely concerned by the on-going conflict in Syria, which continued to have devastating consequences on civilians. She noted other country situations that also deserved the attention of the Council and her Office including Bahrain, Colombia, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, France, Greece, Kenya, the Maldives, Mali, Mauritania, Mexico, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, the occupied Palestinian territory, South Africa, Sudan and Tunisia.

In the general debate, speakers raised concerns about issues highlighted in the High Commissioner’s statement and spoke about challenges facing the High Commissioner and her Office, which included an increasing need for principled, transparent and timely responses to human rights challenges globally, and strengthening the field presence of the Office. Those challenges, and particularly that related to resources, must be responded to and countries welcomed efforts to openly discuss the strategic priorities and funding by the Office of the High Commissioner. Speakers shared concerns about the persistence in racism and racist acts, the situation of migrants in countries of transit and destination, and reiterated deep concern about the ongoing crisis in Syria.

Member States which addressed the Council in the general debate that followed the High Commissioner’s statement included Senegal on behalf of the African Group, Cyprus on behalf of the European Union, Pakistan on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Iran on behalf of the Non Aligned Movement, Italy, Russia, United States, Norway, Chile, Czech Republic, Thailand, Cuba, Qatar, Republic of Moldova, Maldives, China, Switzerland, Spain, Uruguay, Peru, Philippines, Belgium and Indonesia.

The next meeting of the Council will be at 3 p.m. this afternoon when the Council will conclude its general debate on the annual report of the High Commissioner and reports of her Office and the Secretary-General, and then start an interactive dialogue with the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict.

Opening Statements

BAN KI-MOON, United Nations Secretary-General, commended the Council for its response to recent crises and situations encountered by countries in a period of challenges and change. The Council had an increasingly diverse toolkit, ranging from special procedures to investigations, debates and other initiatives. This offered a dynamic system for putting human rights violations on the map and for promoting, protecting and defending rights. Women, men and children in every country, who were confronted with grave crimes committed amidst conflict or were victims of day-to-day discrimination, had the right to expect that international community to be on their side and wanted to know that it was ready to react. This was an ongoing challenge. Mr. Ban welcomed the decision to suspend the membership of Libya in response to abuses and said that the Council must respond to all human rights violations in an even-handed manner, without disproportionately emphasizing any one situation over another. A selective approach to human rights violations had the effect of damaging credibility and the Council’s efforts must be universal and consistent.

The Secretary-General commended the Council for responding to the crisis in Syria and remained deeply troubled by the aerial bombardments of civilians by Government forces, the increasing sectarian tensions, the deteriorating humanitarian situation, and the apparent choice of both sides to pursue a solution through force rather than dialogue. He urged all involved to unite behind the diplomatic efforts of the Joint Special Representative of the United Nations and the League of Arab States Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi. He welcomed the stepped-up engagement by the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council while the Security Council had been divided on the situation, and encouraged the Council to maintain its vigilance on Syria, including on the question of accountability. It was necessary to ensure that anyone, on any side, who committed war crimes, crimes against humanity or other violations of international human rights or humanitarian law was brought to justice.

The critical situation in the Sahel was also cause for concern; conditions had worsened in Mali and grave violations were being committed against the population in the North. The Secretary-General shared the High Commissioner’s deep dismay about reports of abuses against civilians and counted on the Council to respond. Mr. Ban also remained concerned about the unfulfilled human rights of the Palestinian people, in particular the right to self-determination. A sustainable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict required a negotiated agreement that ended the 1967 occupation and resulted in an independent, sovereign, democratic and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbours. This objective must be supported by developments on the ground, including respect for human rights and international law, and concerted efforts to build the foundations of a future Palestinian state. The situation in Gaza remained tense and troubling with indiscriminate rocket fire from Gaza and Israeli airstrikes and incursions. Serious human rights, humanitarian and socio-economic problems only added to the immense human suffering. The Secretary-General urged Israel to lift its harsh restrictions in order to ease the plight of civilians and bring an end to the closure. Keeping a large and dense population in unremitting poverty was in nobody's interest except that of the most extreme radicals in the region.

Secretary-General Ban said five clear challenges warranted the Council’s attention. First, it was necessary to do more to ensure that the output of this Council and other United Nations human rights mechanisms shaped policy-making across the United Nations, including the post-2015 development agenda and the implementation of the outcome of the Rio+20 Conference. Second, States had a responsibility to protect those who courageously advocated and risked their lives to defend human rights and the values of the Charter and the Council should send a strong signal that there could be no impunity for reprisals and intimidation against those who advocated for human rights. Third, the Secretary-General commended the groundbreaking first-ever intergovernmental discussion on discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This should not be a one-time event and Mr. Ban urged the Council to deepen its engagement on this issue so that protection and dignity truly reached all members of the human family. Fourth, it was necessary to fight for the rights of women, including their reproductive rights and their political, social and economic empowerment. Finally, Mr. Ban expressed full support for the High Commissioner for Human Rights and her team. Ms. Pillay’s ability to speak out on violations and systemic human rights concerns was one of the international community’s most important early warning tools. The Secretary-General encouraged the Council to offer its complete support while fully respecting her independence, and appealed all Member States to increase budget allocations for human rights so that Office of the High Commissioner counted the necessary resources.

The Secretary-General made a strong call to all States to engage and cooperate with all United Nations human rights mechanisms, including the special procedures and investigations of the Human Rights Council; and urged governments to see the Special Rapporteurs as indispensable sources of expertise and as valuable partners in building more just, equitable and secure societies. Mr. Ban also called on States to avoid breaking the virtuous cycle of 100 per cent participation in – and cooperation with – the Universal Periodic Review mechanism, and to devote as much attention to economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development, as to civil and political rights. It was an affront to the conscience that millions of people still struggled against poverty, hunger and disease, which violated their fundamental human rights. States must be in the forefront in upholding the indivisibility and equal treatment of all human rights and Mr. Ban counted on them to rise to the challenge.

NAVI PILLAY, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed sympathy for the victims of the recent earthquakes in China and the bombings that had taken place across Iraq over the weekend. The Office of the High Commissioner had made great strides in underlining the indivisibility of human rights and had quickly grasped at new avenues to support States in implementing their human rights obligations on the ground, in particular following the changes in the Arab world. The Office had been a staunch advocate for the promotion and protection of the rights of migrants, and had successfully undertaken the treaty body strengthening process. However, numerous human rights challenges continued to persist and preoccupy the Office: poverty, impunity, armed conflicts, refugee flows, discrimination, religious intolerance, arbitrary executions, and the impact of the pervasive economic and financial crisis.

The High Commissioner said she was gravely concerned by the on-going conflict in Syria, which continued to have devastating consequences on civilians. The use of heavy weapons by the Government and the shelling of populated areas had resulted in high numbers of civilian casualties, mass displacement of civilians inside and outside the country and a devastating humanitarian crisis. She was concerned that they may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, and was equally concerned about violations by anti-government forces, including murder, extrajudicial execution and torture as well as the recently increased use of improvised explosive devices. Other country situations also deserved the attention of the Council and her Office, said Ms. Pillay, mentioning Bahrain, Colombia, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, France, Greece, Kenya, the Maldives, Mali, Mauritania, Mexico, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, the occupied Palestinian territory, South Africa, Sudan and Tunisia.

Ms. Pillay said the global trend and position on the death penalty had evolved. Currently around 150 of the 193 Member States of the United Nations had abolished the death penalty or introduced a moratorium, either in law or in practice. However, some States continued to use it. Frequently, international standards guaranteeing the protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty were not fully respected. The High Commissioner deplored the fact that there had been an increase of executions in a few countries, including the Gambia, South Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Belarus, China, Japan, Saudi Arabia and the United States, as well as by the de facto authorities in the Gaza strip.

Ms. Pillay was disturbed that the world continued to witness the targeting of religious minorities. Such acts must be condemned and discriminatory laws and practices must be rooted out. Women and girls of African descent should be given special attention to address the compounded discrimination they faced based on racial or ethnic origin, socio-economic status and gender. The High Commissioner said she regretted that she again must raise concerns over reprisals against persons who had cooperated with the United Nations in the field of human rights as cases of threats and intimidation continued to be documented.

In conclusion, the High Commissioner said the financial status of the Office was a critical concern, both in respect of mandated activities that should be fully supported by the United Nations regular budget, as well as on the extra-budgetary side. The regular budget did not provide adequate resources to support the international human rights mechanisms, nor the many new mandates reached by this Council every year. Accordingly her Office had been obliged to dedicate ever more extra-budgetary funds to enable those mandates to function. They were stretched to breaking point.

General Debate on the Annual Report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and Reports of the Office and the Secretary-General

Senegal, speaking on behalf of the African Group, welcomed the progress highlighted in the High Commissioner’s report and said that the challenges, particularly those related to resources, must be responded to. Given the persistence in racism and racist acts, the African Group accorded particular importance to the fight against racism and the search for long-term solutions to the racism suffered by persons of African descent. The African Group was concerned about the situation of migrants and the stigma they suffered in countries of transit and destination.

Cyprus, speaking on behalf of the European Union, welcomed the efforts of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights aimed at strengthening its presence on the ground and welcomed the progress achieved in establishing a field presence in Yemen. The European Union reiterated its deep concern about the ongoing crisis in Syria and shared Ms. Pillay’s views on the importance of accountability. With regard to the death penalty, the European Union urged Governments to halt executions and establish an effective moratorium.

Pakistan, speaking on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, emphasized the important advocacy role of the Office to promote and protect human rights across the globe and said that it should be implemented by addressing all situations of concern without selectivity and with the same zeal. The international community needed to analyze the reasons for the continued gaps in the implementation of and achieving the Millennium Development Goals and to ensure that the post-2015 development agenda included strategies and policies for achieving new targets, in particular in relation to human rights.

Iran, speaking on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, commended the open discussion on the strategic priorities and funding by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, but the question of equal geographical representation among the staff remained a challenge. The Non-Aligned Movement recognised the efforts of the High Commissioner to integrate human rights considerations at the Rio+20 but expressed disappointment at the lack of meaningful support from developed countries. The Office of the High Commissioner should focus on strengthening mechanisms of constructive dialogue and cooperation with concerned countries, including through technical assistance

Italy said that human rights constituted a powerful drive for institutional and social change and welcomed the references to gender in the presentations made by the Secretary-General and the High Commissioner. Italy was appalled by the spiral of violence in Syria, strongly condemned the massive human rights violations, and urged once again an immediate end to the brutal violence against civilians. Italy was encouraged by the progress achieved in Somalia and called on the Somali leadership to build upon the rule of law and full respect for human rights.

Russia said that problems which affected all countries without exception should be addressed on a thematic rather than geographic basis. Russia welcomed efforts to openly discuss the strategic priorities and funding by the Office of the High Commissioner in Geneva and New York. The fight against racist hate speech and incitement to hatred in the media and the Internet was important. The work of the High Commissioner should be based on objective, reliable and checked information from credible sources to avoid any arbitrary judgements and selectivity.

United States said the importance of the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria could not be overstated and strongly supported the extension of the mandate. There could be no doubt that the architect of the destruction in Syria was President Bashar Al Assad and his regime had to end. The United States noted with serious concern the lack of cooperation of the Government of Sudan to provide full access to the Independent Expert on Sudan and called for immediate humanitarian access to the affected populations.

Norway believed the High Commissioner for Human Rights and her Office would face three main challenges, namely an increasing need for principled, transparent and timely responses to the many human rights challenges over the world, the need to strengthen the third pillar upon which the United Nations was founded as a means to move principles into realities, and the need to strengthen the field presence of the Office. A comprehensive and balanced approach was needed to establish a more sustainable resourcing of the Office over the coming years, with commitment from all stakeholders.

Chile said there were many challenges in the field of human rights, particularly in times of crisis, and comprehensive approaches were needed. The situation in Syria continued to require urgent attention. Action in the field was of fundamental importance for the human rights system in order to ensure a real impact on the lives of persons and as such the promotion of an effective and constructive dialogue was needed. Gender equality continued to be a central theme. Chile shared the concern about reprisals against persons cooperating with human rights mechanisms.

Czech Republic shared the importance accorded to the Special Procedures by the High Commissioner, especially in the light of numerous and persistent challenges to the full realization of human rights. The Czech Republic also welcomed the attention accorded to the issue of reprisals and persecution of those advocating for human rights and said that every incident in this area should be given international attention.

Thailand supported the call of the High Commissioner to fight impunity and urged the Council to find ways to address those situations in a constructive and non-selective manner with the engagement of the country concerned. Thailand welcomed serious efforts by Myanmar to address the allegations of human rights violations in the Rakhine State and called upon the Council to remain supportive of this country to find a sustainable solution and avoid any confrontational approach.

Cuba reiterated its rejection of any attempt to undermine the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and condemned all actions intended to promote foreign military interventions against this country. Cuba supported the search for a political solution in Syria and reiterated the importance of continuing to correct the serious geographical imbalance in the staffing of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Qatar said that ongoing human rights violations which could amount to crimes against humanity demonstrated the barbaric nature of the Syrian regime. The international community should meet its responsibility and call for an immediate ceasefire in accordance with the United Nations Charter to ensure the protection of the Syrian people and that perpetrators were held accountable. Qatar called for further pressure on Israel concerning the situation in Gaza, and condemned the violations committed against the minorities in Myanmar and called on the international community to ensure their rights.

Republic of Moldova remained deeply concerned about the on-going conflict and gross violations in Syria and supported the efforts by the High Commissioner to strengthen the Special Procedures and the treaty bodies within the United Nations machinery. The Republic of Moldova reiterated concerns about the threats and intimidation suffered by people who had cooperated with the United Nations in the field of human rights, and attached great importance to gender equality, the elimination of discrimination against women, and the implementation of the United Nations’ programme on women’s access to justice.

Maldives said that the report of the Maldives Commission of National Inquiry had found that President Nasheed’s resignation and the appointment of President Waheed were constitutional and legitimate and a new process of dialogue between political parties was underway. Noting the continued atrocities being committed in Syria, Maldives renewed its calls for an end to violence and for a political transition leading to fair elections. It also urged a halt to all settlement activity in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the resumption of talks.

China appreciated the efforts of the Office of the High Commissioner in the promotion and protection of women and children’s rights. It hoped the Office would be more impartial and objective. China welcomed the dialogue on the strategic framework of the Office that took place in June 2012, which helped strengthen mutual understanding and cooperation between Member States and the Office, and the dialogue on transparency of funding which took place in July 2012. China hoped the Office would make further efforts to ensure transparency of funding.

Switzerland said that the independence of treaty bodies and their members had to be ensured. It would present a resolution on transitional justice emphasizing the specificity of gender in these processes as well as the key role assumed by women in these. Switzerland welcomed the reform process in Myanmar but was preoccupied by human rights violations in Rakhine and Kachin. It deplored the interruption of the moratorium of the death penalty in the Gambia.

Spain said that following the events of the Arab Spring, the Office had been able to urgently and imminently respond to those countries that continued to combat human rights violation. All these events had shown the continuing existence of human rights violations, currently with particular concern regarding Syria. Spain appealed for attention to be paid to the situation in South Kordofan and the Blue Nile in Sudan. Spain expressed deep concern about the suspension of the moratorium on the death penalty in the Gambia.

Uruguay continued to accord priority to national policies for the development and protection and promotion of human rights. The priority was on eradicating poverty, which had dropped by 5 per cent in the period 2010-2011. Uruguay had continued with its efforts in the area of truth and justice and had invited the Independent Expert to visit the country.

Peru regretted that the deteriorating situation in Syria had prevented the implementation of the mandate of the United Nations Observer Mission in this country and strongly condemned the use of force against the civilian population. Peru was further concerned about the failure to eradicate the death penalty in the world and also called on the High Commissioner to carry out activities promoting the rights of indigenous peoples.

Philippines congratulated the High Commissioner for the achievements of her Office to promote, protect and implement human rights worldwide. The Philippines hoped that the High Commissioner and her Office would once more achieve milestones in advancing and protecting human rights, especially in troubled areas around the globe, and encouraged her to intensify the work in the area of climate change, migrants’ rights, protection, women, children and gender rights issues, and the right to development.

Belgium called on all States to cooperate with the Office of the High Commissioner and the Special Procedures of the Council. Independence was of crucial importance in order to ensure impartiality and the current rules concerning the funding and strategic plan of the Office should thus be maintained. The real challenge concerned the need for additional resources. Belgium expressed concern about the situation in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo which had serious consequences for the enjoyment of human rights among the local population.

Indonesia noted the efforts of the Office of the High Commissioner and its contribution to the Universal Periodic Review. Indonesia urged the Council to address the consequences of austerity; and strongly supported the strengthening of technical cooperation and capacity building, and the current initiatives on transparency of funding and the strategic priorities of the Office of the High Commissioner. Indonesia expressed concerned about the situation in Syria and called on the international community to overcome divisions and ensure accountability for perpetrators.
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For use of the information media; not an official record