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Informal conversation with the Members and Observers of the Human Rights Council

Briefing by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

Geneva, 15 December 2015

Distinguished President,

I am grateful for this opportunity to interact with you as we approach the end of a difficult year for human rights. A year in which, nonetheless, much has been achieved, most notably the agreement on ambitious new Sustainable Development Goals, and inclusion of important human rights language in the preamble of Saturday’s landmark Paris Agreement on climate change. The UN’s human rights presences around the world have advised on the adoption of many good laws, policies and practices, conducted many trainings, much advocacy, monitoring and technical assistance. In just the past two weeks, there has been some good news, including the end of the death penalty in Mongolia, and the very welcome exercise of the right to political participation for women in Saudi Arabia where 20 women have just won seats in the country’s municipal councils.

On my part, as you are aware, I have travelled this year to every region – to Burundi and Tunisia, and since the summer to the Republic of Korea, the Central African Republic (CAR), Mexico, the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Brazil.

Seventy years after the birth of the United Nations, we are faced with new, rapidly evolving and alarming issues such as climate change and mass surveillance, as well as age-old issues like intolerance, discrimination and political repression. We have a number of protracted armed conflicts, some simmering, others boiling uncontrollably. And we have situations where States are teetering on the edge of the abyss with the smallest trigger potentially resulting in a disastrous outbreak of mass human rights abuses and violations. The most obvious example is Burundi, where the situation gets more alarming every day. I will provide more information on Burundi in my opening statement to the Human Rights Council during the Special Session this Thursday.

During my mission to the Republic of Korea in June, I opened a small office to monitor the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), where human rights violations are ingrained in every aspect of life. Since my visit, the OHCHR office in Seoul has been collecting testimony from individuals who have left the DPRK, documenting developments in the human rights situation and deepening the evidentiary basis for the time when accountability will come, as one day it must. We have also kept direct channels open to the DPRK authorities. Engagement and accountability are both indispensable for the recovery of a severely fractured society like the DPRK.

While in Seoul, I also discussed various human rights issues relating to the Republic of Korea itself, including limitations imposed on freedom of expression and freedom of assembly by the 1948 National Security Act, and allegations of excessive use of intrusive surveillance by the National Intelligence Service. I also met some of the few surviving so-called “Comfort Women,” tens of thousands of whom were forced into sexual slavery by occupying Japanese forces in several countries in the region during World War II, and expressed my concern that, despite some significant steps taken by Japan over the years, the victims of this terrible crime do not feel their suffering has been adequately and universally recognized.

Accountability for human rights violations has been a key thread through many of my travels this year.

In the Central African Republic in early September, I stressed that there was a need for a much more robust approach towards the anti-Balaka and ex-Seleka forces, the LRA, and the myriad other armed groups, to make it clear that that their lawless behaviour will no longer be tolerated by the Government and the international forces who are together tasked with bringing sustainable peace to this deeply damaged and divided country. That task is, of course, not simple: if international forces begin arresting leading members of armed groups, there needs to be a functioning justice system to investigate, prosecute and bring judgement in fair trials, and there need to be adequate, secure prisons in which to detain them. Both current and future Governments and their international supporters, including my own Office, need to step up their efforts to install a justice system that works and mechanisms to protect human rights. The UN and the Government are increasing efforts to accelerate the establishment of the Special Criminal Court to hold accountable those responsible for the most serious crimes committed in CAR. This is an absolutely key component of peace and stabilization efforts.

During my time in CAR, I was struck by the enormity of the challenges faced by the United Nations, the leadership of the country, and the Central African people as they seek to bring the country back to constitutional order, stability, reconciliation and reconstruction. Many people I met during this visit lamented the UN’s and Government’s failure to rein in the armed groups, and the very halting efforts at disarmament. Unfortunately, this situation has only worsened since my visit, with the mass escape of some 800 prisoners from the main prisons in Bangui and Bouar at the end of September following a spiral of sectarian violence and reprisal attacks that left some 130 people killed and over 430 injured in Bangui.

Ahead of the upcoming elections, there has also been increasing use of sectarian language by some armed groups and political leaders. There have been calls by authorities at the highest level for vigilante groups to be established. I urge those making provocative statements to halt their war cries and instead participate peacefully and constructively in the presidential and legislative elections. I applaud the courage of the large number of people who took to the polls for the constitutional referendum last weekend in spite of a difficult security situation, much intimidation and violence. The conduct of the presidential and legislative elections will be a crucial test of CAR’s progress towards peace and democracy. The international community must stay fully engaged.

Impunity was also a key issue during my October visit to Mexico, an issue which featured prominently in my discussions with the authorities, civil society and victims of violence. I urged the authorities to address the rate of impunity – with an extraordinary 98 percent of crimes going unsolved. The case of the 43 students who disappeared in Iguala more than a year ago illustrates only too tragically the consequences of such impunity, and I urge full implementation of the recommendations issued by the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights on this.

I acknowledged the Government’s efforts and the remarkable legal, institutional and policies frameworks developed to promote human rights but I stressed that there were serious deficiencies related to their implementation. For the people of Mexico, these laws, institutions and policies have yet to yield concrete results.

In my meeting with President Peña Nieto, he recognised the significant human rights challenges in the country as well as the need to ensure the application of international human rights norms at Federal and State levels - notwithstanding the sophisticated legal framework already in place. I emphasized the need for urgent action on human rights and offered the strengthened support of OHCHR Mexico. I welcome the President’s signature last Friday on draft bills on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes relating to Missing Persons and on the bill on the Prevention, Investigation and Punishment of Crimes of Torture. These two important bills will now be submitted to Congress.

Following the Mexico mission, I briefly visited the United Kingdom at the invitation of the UN Association-UK to speak about the UN at 70, what we have achieved and where we have failed. I was clear that in spite of its many failures and shortcomings, the UN experiment has been a supremely valuable one and continues to help humanity make unprecedented advances in peace, development and human rights. I cited the Universal Periodic Review as one example of the tremendous shift in mind-set that the UN has successfully managed. A few decades ago, it would have been unimaginable for every UN Member State to allow such full scrutiny of its human rights record by its peers.

In my bilateral meetings with senior Government officials, the National Human Rights Institution, Members of Parliament as well as civil society organisations in the UK, I had the opportunity to address key domestic human rights issues. I raised particular concern at the suggestion that the Government was considering scrapping the Human Rights Act, which would have a significant impact on access to remedy for victims of human rights violations within the jurisdiction of the UK. Such a move would be a big, very regrettable step backwards for human rights protection in the UK.

During my visit, as well as on other occasions, while reinforcing my Office’s support for the right to freedom of expression, I expressed my concerns about the disgraceful xenophobic rhetoric appearing in certain British tabloid newspapers. I called for clear leadership by the authorities and politicians to counter incitement to racial or religious hatred and xenophobia.

I expressed concerns about the increasing number of States curtailing human rights under the profoundly erroneous impression that mass surveillance and repression of dissent will somehow defeat the threat posed by terrorism and violent extremism. In the meeting with UK Parliamentarians, I addressed the importance of their oversight role with respect to the Government’s human rights policies and actions, as well to as the European response to the migration and refugee crisis and the challenges presented by violent extremism.

These were also issues that permeated my mission to Sweden last month, where I received the 2015 Stockholm Human Rights Award on behalf of my colleagues at the OHCHR. I highlighted the multiple challenges brought by the migration crisis in Europe and discussed their impact in Sweden. One must recognize the significant efforts made by Sweden over the years in welcoming migrants and refugees, while noting the need for the EU to find effective ways to share the responsibilities in this regard. I spoke on the rights of children in the context of the migration crisis at the 2015 Global Child Forum organized under the auspices of their Majesties the King and Queen of Sweden. International law is clear: all children need and deserve protection – regardless of whether they have visas. The rights laid out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child should be guaranteed for migrant children, as they are for all children under the jurisdiction of a State.

In my meetings with the authorities and with civil society, I discussed the rights of the most vulnerable groups, particularly minority groups such as the Roma, Muslims, Jews, Afro-descendants and indigenous Sami groups, as well as refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants. I expressed my alarm that Sweden is also experiencing increasing instances of extremism, intolerance, and hate-crimes aimed at some of these groups.

I also stressed the need for human rights and development to be more closely aligned in the context of the 2030 Agenda and especially its SDG 16. As the international human rights machinery identifies critical gaps in governance, rule of law and human rights, development cooperation efforts must increasingly include concerted action by Governments and the international community to address them.

Highlighting the rights of Afro-descendants was the purpose of my next mission, to Brazil where, earlier this month, I participated in the first Regional Meeting of the International Decade for People of African Descent – an effort to seize the opportunities and initiatives provided by the Decade to bring concrete improvement to the lives of Afro-descendants.

I acknowledged the enormity of the task before us: ten years to reverse five centuries of structural discrimination. Racial discrimination that has deep roots grown in colonialism and slavery and nourished daily with fear, poverty and violence, roots that aggressively infiltrate every aspect of life – from access to food and education to physical integrity, to participation in decisions that fundamentally affect one’s life.

Today, there are more than 150 million people of African descent in Latin America and the Caribbean – about 30 per cent of the population. Yet throughout much of the region they are almost invisible in the halls of power – economic, academic, professional or political, at local or national levels, and high rates of inequality persist. Historically and in the present day, people of African descent have been major contributors to development and the prosperity of their societies and nations. But consistently, their human rights have been violated so that others may thrive.

I called on States to embrace the three themes for the Decade: Recognition, Justice and Development. Recognition begins with acknowledging and understanding the extent and depth of racism and racial discrimination faced by people of African descent and by making Afro-descendant history, culture and achievements visible. Justice is about urgently addressing the disproportionate use of force against people of African descent, their over-incarceration, racial profiling and discrimination – and about combating impunity for such human rights violations. Development must aim at improving the well-being of all. Women and men of African descent must be active partners in the design of development initiatives.

I called on States to honour their commitments and obligations under international human rights law and use all the tools at their disposal to make concrete progress in advancing the rights of people of African descent. The Declaration adopted at the regional meeting reaffirms States’ commitment to the full implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action at national, regional and global levels. I also welcome the creation of the Forum for People of African Descent and support the elaboration of a draft UN Declaration in this regard.

During my visit to Brasilia, I also had substantive bilateral meetings with high-ranking Government officials as well as civil society and academics. I acknowledged the efforts undertaken by the Brazilian government to decrease poverty and reduce inequality in the past decade by making social programmes a top government priority. I also thanked Brazil for its active role in the Human Rights Council, including with regard to racism and racial discrimination, xenophobia and related forms of intolerance and sexual orientation and gender identity.

However, I expressed concern over the fact that Brazil's positive developments had recently been challenged by a declining economy and the introduction of legislative projects that undermined hard-won human rights standards in various areas, including bill 215 which intends to shift decision-making power on the demarcation of indigenous and Quilombola lands from the executive branch of government to the legislature, and an initiative decreasing the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16 years. I also highlighted challenges related to public security and street violence, the overcrowded prison system, corruption, poverty, exclusion and multiple and aggravated forms of discrimination. Such discrimination is particularly manifested in a lack of access to basic economic, social and cultural rights for large segments of society. Government officials across the board expressed commitment to address, as a matter of urgency, the pervasive discrimination and violence faced by people of African descent, and solicited strengthened support from OHCHR through the structure of its Regional Office for South America.

With regard to the recent mining disaster in Mina Gerais, I called for a thorough and impartial investigation and recalled the joint responsibility of States and businesses to protect and respect human rights as outlined in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.


Conflict continues to devastate the lives of millions of people on this planet. In 2015, the number of people who had been forced to flee their homes or their countries reached 60 million, the highest number since World War II. Among them are the more than 925,000 desperate people who, by 10 December, had reached the shores of Europe this year, around half of them fleeing the conflict in Syria. As we enter 2016, the conflicts driving much of this record displacement show no signs of abating.

In addition to conflict and persecution, the drivers for the non-voluntary movement of people are multiple and intertwined. Today, the reasons for such movement include, separately or in combination, poverty, discrimination, lack of education and healthcare, denial of economic and social rights, and the wide-ranging consequences of climate change. Indeed, I am concerned that many climate-related migrants are already falling into protection gaps, particularly those seeking to escape the future impacts of slow-onset disasters.

Sadly, we have also seen a sharp rise in hateful, xenophobic rhetoric and actions against these vulnerable, and in many cases, deeply suffering individuals.

This is an issue we will address in more depth at this afternoon’s panel on Promoting tolerance, dispelling myths, protecting rights: an evidence-based conversation on migration.


We enter the seventh decade of the United Nations with a sombre awareness of the many ongoing and looming catastrophes and with great trepidation for what the future holds. We mourn the innocent children, women and men whose lives have been destroyed by ruthless terrorists in an increasing number of countries across the world. We also watch with concern as more and more States, in response, enact measures in the name of counter-terrorism which may in fact have a more negative impact on the enjoyment of human rights by their own populations than they will on terrorist groups, which thrive on divisive, intrusive and repressive policies.

In the face of such turmoil, all States need to go back to the roots of the United Nations, which grew with remarkable speed and great depth in response to the mass devastation of the Second World War. In these trying times, we need to strengthen – not weaken – the core values of the United Nations and reacquire the wisdom that humanity gained in the aftermath of the war, the wisdom so beautifully enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, when it states that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

I thank you.