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Statement by Mr. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations General Assembly 69th Session

New York, 22 October 2014

Mr. Chair,
Colleagues and friends,

I am honoured to present this report on the work accomplished by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights between August 2013 and July 2014, under my predecessor, Navi Pillay.  The breadth and depth of the achievements that it outlines are impressive.

During this period, at a time of deepening turmoil in the world, OHCHR was under pressure on multiple fronts.   From the relentless slaughter in Syria and its spill-over to a new wave of barbarity in Iraq; from the deplorable conflict in Ukraine to the entirely avoidable bloodshed in South Sudan – and, at the end of this reporting period, the slow, smouldering  spread of Ebola – 2013-2014 was a year of devastating impact on human rights.

A toxic tide of discrimination and xenophobia has undermined the dignity, equality and rights of people in numerous States.   The right to development has been threatened by austerity policies that disproportionately burden the poor and marginalised, as well as by corruption; by failures to prioritize public services; and by refusal to uphold people’s right to participate in decisions that shape their lives. Migrants have continued to endure appalling suffering, with recent events at sea demonstrating a striking disregard for human life and human rights.   The individual agency of women has been viciously and violently attacked in some States, while many more continue to fail to uphold women’s equality.

On all these topics and more, solutions can only come from more emphatic and comprehensive protection of human rights.


In this room, as in many other rooms, the representatives of many States continue to repeat the mantras of human rights concern. But it must now be clear to all that the only way to avoid disaster is to take real action to uphold the rights that all States are committed to respecting.

In this past year we have seen multiple examples of Member States and their proxies directing personal attacks against Special Procedures mandate holders, members of Commissions of Inquiry, and human rights officers and officials who report on shortcomings and gaps in their human rights protection.   This is not only unbecoming of the dignity of Governments; it also generates a clear impression of guilt.    Rarely, if ever, have these mandate holders criticized the persons of the Heads of Government, no matter what abuses they have allegedly instigated.    I urge Member States to address their attention to the content of reports, rather than to the person who has issued them.

On Commissions of Inquiry – which are independent from OHCHR, but which do work that is fundamental to the cause of human rights – I urge all States concerned to co-operate with their efforts, which can only contribute to stability and justice in their countries.

Sadly, I must also raise the painful issue of continued reprisals against human rights defenders.   These women and men seek only to ensure that the rights of all individuals are promoted and respected by the authorities. This is legitimate, indeed often heroic, work.   If despite all the power and authority at its disposal, the future of a Government hangs on a tweet, a street protest or a helpful report to an NGO or UN agency, then that Government is in far deeper trouble than it believes.   For it has forgotten the fundamental principle that the State is the servant of its people – not the other way round.   


Rising inequality and the political, economic and social exclusion of marginalised groups, drive much of the unrest and conflict that has swept across the globe in recent years.   This is why the world’s attention turned to the General Assembly last month, as it opened its 69th session with a focus on “Delivering on and Implementing a Transformative Post-2015 Development Agenda”.    It is also why OHCHR has pressed for an inspirational agenda centred on the firm foundations of human rights, including the right to development – as in the UN Charter's call to, I quote, “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small…to promote social progress and better standards of life, in larger freedom."

As the intergovernmental deliberations on the SDGs proceed, I am concerned at the apparent polarisation and misunderstanding across political and regional groups regarding the right to development.   This prolonged failure to achieve consensus is an obstacle to the mandate that was entrusted to me by the General Assembly, which encompasses all human rights, including the right to development.   I trust that Member States can engage constructively and resolve their differences, given the centrality of the right to development to the purpose and mission of the United Nations. 

All human rights must be at the core of all UN work, as is reaffirmed by the Secretary-General’s Human Rights Up Front action plan, which seeks to strengthen UN prevention and response efforts to situations where people are at risk of, or are subject to, violations of international human rights or humanitarian law.   So very often, at the root of the crises confronted by the UN, we find a complex web of violations of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights.   Early and coordinated action across the full spectrum of human rights would achieve our goal of prevention more effectively.   The Rule of Law agenda, too, should be understood as encompassing all human rights, rather than focusing narrowly on law and order.

It is vital that human rights be integrated into the response to two looming tragedies: Ebola and climate change.   The failure of duty-bearers, including States, to address people’s rights to basic goods and services – health-care, food, livelihood, housing, but also access to timely information – have fuelled the Ebola epidemic.  

As with Ebola, failure to address systemic and systematic denial of economic, social and cultural rights may be not only a causal factor of climate change, but also among its far-reaching consequences, including especially for small island nations in the Pacific and Caribbean.

In its work on all these topics and far more, OHCHR’s staff has, over the reporting period, demonstrated outstanding dedication.   At July 2014, the Office supported 68 human rights field presences, comprising 13 stand-alone country offices; 12 regional offices; human rights components in 14 United Nations peace missions; and 29 human rights advisers.   They have engaged with governments and other counterparts to identify and address a wide range of human rights issues, and provided relevant and timely technical advice and assistance.

During the period covered by this report, OHCHR conducted three monitoring missions to Mali, in the midst of the crisis; rapidly deployed a comprehensive human rights monitoring mission to Ukraine; issued public reports on human rights developments in Mali, Ukraine and Iraq; deployed a team to the Philippines to provide advice on key human rights responses in the aftermath of the typhoon; and took part in the training, planning, review and reconfiguration of United Nations peace missions – most recently in the Central African Republic.   In fact, OHCHR personnel were the first UN staff to arrive in conflict areas in Ukraine, in Mali and in Kyrgyzstan, as well as several remote areas of the Central African Republic following the outbreak of the current conflicts.  

As detailed in the report, OHCHR has provided technical assistance to dozens of countries on a very wide range of issues, spanning our six thematic and cross-cutting priorities – discrimination; the rule of law and ending impunity; poverty; violence; continuing efforts to improve international human rights mechanisms; and widening the democratic space – as well as a cross-cutting theme, migration.   This assistance – which it would be impossible to detail in the time allotted to me –addresses the prevention of rights violations and crises, as well as their resolution.

In accordance with its mandate to support the work of international human rights mechanisms, OHCHR’s work with the Human Rights Council  has included assistance with the Council’s ground-breaking panels and reports on issues such as privacy in the digital age; the use of armed drones; and sexual orientation. OHCHR has also supported the unprecedented work of the Council’s Universal Periodic Review, which continued during 2013 and 2014 with a 100% rate of participation.   We have provided technical assistance to many member States in follow-up.

New international human rights treaties and conventions – most recently the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on a communications procedure – have resulted in additional mandates for related committees and working groups.    The Office also supports a constantly growing number of Special Procedures mandates, as well as the Commissions of Inquiry and fact-finding missions mandated by the Human Rights Council and the Security Council.   At the end of July, there were 52 mandates and 73 mandate holders, including 38 thematic mandates and 14 country mandates. OHCHR was also assisting or conducting three Commissions of Inquiry or mandated investigations – on the Syrian Arab Republic, Central African Republic and Sri Lanka – with three more soon to become operational, on Eritrea, the Occupied Palestinian Territory including East Jerusalem, and Iraq.

This surge of interest in human rights issues is thoroughly welcome. But servicing these mandates is an increasingly onerous task.

When I took up my mandate as High Commissioner for Human Rights last month, I was startled to discover that all the extensive work of this Office is achieved despite funding shortfalls that burden the Office with significant capacity deficits.   Little more than a third of the Office’s current financing is provided from the United Nations regular budget, meaning that year after year, the Office does not even receive sufficient regular-budget funding to pursue its mandated activities.

Human rights is recognized as one of the three pillars of the UN system, the other two being development and peace and security.   Yet this pillar receives only a fraction of the resources provided to the other two. For the 2014-2015 biennium, US$173.5 million was allocated to OHCHR – 87% less than the allocation to the peace and security pillar, and 84% less than the allocation to development.

Excellencies, a stool with one leg so vastly shorter than the others cannot possibly bear the weight of dramatically increasing global expectations.

 The Office is stretched to its limit, with some desk officers covering seven or eight countries, a web-site that clearly requires a significant infusion of funds, and insufficient human resources to focus adequately on an issue as vital to human rights as climate change – with its multiple implications for displacement, statelessness, land-rights, resources, security and development.

Before I took up this mandate I had no idea that the Office was so drastically under-resourced.   And I believe that this misperception of adequate resources is widely shared within the UN.   That is an indication of the remarkable performance of my predecessor, and of our staff. But this is not sustainable.   Nor is it remotely in tune with the importance that States say they give to human rights in their conduct of world affairs.

When human rights go wrong – when violations and abuses generate explosive crises and conflicts – the cost in bloodshed, in wrecked economies and humanitarian aid is titanic.   Even one major crisis averted through good human rights groundwork would pay back OHCHR's modest budgets for decades to come.

The world needs a UN Human Rights Office that is strong, resilient and relevant.   OHCHR must have the capacity to detect and alert to human rights violations, and these alarm bells must be followed up swiftly with action, effective and on-point.   The Office must be able to undertake real prevention, including education on human rights at all levels, with better capacity to promote human rights both centrally and in the field.   It should have the ability to analyse much more systematically effective human rights approaches, and to disseminate that research.   It needs a strong monitoring network with far greater capacity than at present.   It needs more staff, to perform all its functions.

 OHCHR has developed an effective and precise results-based management system which ensures that its scant resources are spent for maximum impact, on topics where the Office can provide uniquely valuable work.   There may be room to extend this effort of streamlining and focus, but at present the Office is stretched to the limit, as lean and tightly run as any organization I have seen.

As an example of OHCHR’s impressive lean management, the treaty body strengthening process will provide significant regular budget resources through re-allocation of funding obtained through lighter and simplified procedures.   These cost-savings measures have made it possible to enact, among other items, a new programme with capacity-building activities for States parties in relation to the international human rights treaties.

I look forward to your suggestions regarding ways in which OHCHR can best continue to protect and promote human rights, given the biting constraints of our funding.   There may well be opportunities for stronger partnerships with regional organizations, to amplify our advocacy and other efforts.   But I suggest that many of today's fundamental challenges will best be addressed by a Human Rights Office that has far greater capacity to assist, to promote, and to protect the human rights of all.

Thank you.