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Human Rights Council opens thirty-first session

Human Rights Council
MORNING

29 February 2016

Hears from President of the General Assembly, High Commissioner for Human Rights and Chief of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland

The Human Rights Council this morning opened its thirty-first session, hearing statements by the President of the General Assembly, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland.

Choi Kyong-Lim, President of the Human Rights Council, opening the session, said the March session was considered the main session of the year.  The presence of high-level dignitaries today underscored the importance they attached to the mandate of the Council and the United Nations human rights agenda as a whole.  It was for him a unique privilege and a great honour to serve as President of the Human Rights Council. 

Mogens Lykketoft, President of the General Assembly, said that suffering and death from recent crises was appalling and the disregard for human life and human rights, especially in Syria, was unacceptable.  The international community needed to find courage to live up to obligations towards refugees and migrants.  In the past 10 years the Human Rights Council had become increasingly responsive to sudden emergencies and played an important role highlighting situations that required immediate attention by the whole United Nations.  Now there should be increased focus on the prevention of human rights violations, and on improving accountability. 

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that increasing severe violations of fundamental rights and principles were being generated by poor decisions, unprincipled and often criminal actions, and narrow, short-term and over-simplified approaches to complex questions.  The protection of human life and dignity was crucial at all times, including during armed conflict or occupation, in Syria and elsewhere.  Those fleeing these situations deserved the international community's sympathy and compassion.  To keep building higher walls against the flight of these desperate people was an act of cruelty and a delusion. 

Didier Burkhalter, Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland, said that a solution to the Syrian crisis had to be found now and that Switzerland was committed to supporting mediation activities.  While the fears of populations receiving migrants needed to be considered, it was essential to reinforce the protections and rights of migrants, especially child migrants.  Switzerland had launched today a new human rights strategy aimed at the effective and real implementation of human rights, and would launch an appeal to optimize communication and operational channels between the Human Rights Council and the Security Council in order to enhance conflict prevention.

At 10 a.m., the Human Rights Council will start its High-Level Segment.

Opening Statement

CHOI KYONG-LIM, President of the Human Rights Council, opened the thirty-first session of the Human Rights Council, saying that the March session was considered the main session of the year.  The Council would hear statements from the President of the United Nations General Assembly, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland.  It would then open its High-Level Segment.  The presence of high-level dignitaries underscored the importance they attached to the mandate of the Council and the United Nations human rights agenda as a whole.  It was a unique privilege and a great honour to serve as President of the Human Rights Council. 

Statement by the President of the General Assembly
 
MOGENS LYKKETOFT, President of the General Assembly, noted that 2016 was a year of important anniversaries for the United Nations and the Human Rights Council, and that it provided an opportunity to honestly reflect on what had been achieved and what could be improved.  In the past 70 years, considerable progress had been made, but there had been some immense failings too.  Famines had robbed millions of a future, mass atrocities had occurred, investing into weapons had been prioritized over education and health, whereas advancing economic development had led to catastrophic climate change leading to poverty and inequalities.  2015 had been a good year for multilateralism.  However, suffering and death from recent crises was appalling and the disregard for human life and human rights, especially related to the crisis in Syria, was unacceptable.  Those who signed the United Nations Charter should do more to uphold the laws and principles that protected the dignity and rights of civilians.  The international community needed to ensure access to humanitarian assistance for those who needed it.  It also needed to invest more in peaceful settlements and find courage to live up to obligations towards refugees and migrants.  What the international community should not do was to respond to challenges with heavy-handed measures.  It should not attack civil society and should not allow racism and xenophobia to overpower values of equality and humanity. 

Mr. Lykketoft said that in the past 10 years the Human Rights Council had proven to be a vital part of the United Nations architecture.  The Universal Periodic Review was a tool that enabled every State to enter into dialogue about human rights issues with other States and inter-governmental and non-governmental actors.  The Special Procedures mandate-holders and the Treaty Bodies made up a powerful roadmap for change, if implemented.  The Council had become increasingly responsive to sudden emergencies and it played an important role highlighting situations that required immediate attention by the whole United Nations.  Mr. Lykketoft expressed confidence that the Council would become stronger.  Human rights should not be looked at in isolation.  There should be increased focus on the prevention of human rights violations.  There could be no sustainable development and no long-term peace if people’s rights were violated or ignored.   The daunting task of implementation was before the international community.  International partners had to scale up their financial support, and civil society had to be given space to fully and freely participate in society.   States had to look at how to improve accountability and implementation of human rights.

Statement by the High Commissioner for Human Rights

ZEID RA’AD AL HUSSEIN, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that the tenth anniversary of the Human Rights Council cried out for action, and decisive and cooperative leadership in defence of vital principles.  Increasing severe violations of fundamental rights and principles were being generated by poor decisions, unprincipled and often criminal actions, and narrow, short-term and over-simplified approaches to complex questions, and were now crushing the hopes and lives of countless people.  When the key drafters, representing States, wrote the United Nations Charter and drew up the protective fortress of treaties and laws making up the international system, they knew, from bitter experience, that human rights, the respect for them, the defence of them, would not menace national security, but build more durable nations, and contribute to “a final peace”.  Today, gross violations of international human rights law – which clearly would lead to disastrous outcomes – were being greeted with indifference.  More and more States appeared to believe that the legal architecture of the international system was a menu from which they could pick and choose – trashing what appeared to be inconvenient in the short term. 

This piecemeal dismantling of a system of law and values that States themselves set up to ward off global threats was deeply alarming.  Instead of taking a reasoned and cooperative approach to settling challenges – including the rise of violent extremism, the growing number of armed conflicts, and the movement of people seeking safety – many leaders were pandering to a simplistic nationalism, which mirrored the simplified and destructive 'us' versus 'them' mind-set of the extremists, and fanned a rising wind of prejudice and fear.  This bid to find unilateral quick fixes for issues that had broad roots was not only unprincipled, it was illusory – and it contributed to greater suffering and escalating disarray. 

The protection of human life and dignity was crucial at all times, including during armed conflict or occupation.  International humanitarian law must be applied by all parties, the High Commissioner insisted.  In Syria, neighbourhoods, schools, and packed marketplaces had been hit by tens of thousands of airstrikes, without regard for civilian life.  At least ten hospitals and other medical units had been damaged or destroyed in Syria since the beginning of January.  The repetition of these murderous attacks suggested that some parties to the conflict were targeting medical units deliberately, or with reckless disregard.  Similarly, the deliberate starvation of people was unequivocally forbidden as a weapon of warfare.  And yet over 450,000 people were currently trapped in besieged towns and villages in Syria.  Thousands of people risked starving to death. 

And yet Syria was far from the only armed conflict in which civilians had endured frightful attacks.  Multiple medical facilities, religious sites and schools had been repeatedly attacked and bombed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, South Sudan and Yemen.  The normalization of such attacks was intolerable.  It was extremely alarming that so many conflicts, crises and humanitarian emergencies were currently raging, with repeated violations of the norms that protected people's rights and lives.  In Afghanistan, Burundi, the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the countries around Lake Chad which had suffered the attacks of Boko Haram, Iraq, Libya, Mali, the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen, millions of lives were threatened, and millions of homes were destroyed.  The effects of these prolonged conflicts and emergencies would be endured for generations.  Whether they were the result of deliberate targeting or systemic incompetence, every single attack on civilians and protected civilian objects must be fully, transparently and independently investigated.

Those fleeing these situations deserved the international community's sympathy and compassion.  To keep building higher walls against the flight of these desperate people was an act of cruelty and a delusion.  Migration was a basic fact of human history, and it required global sharing of responsibility.  Anti-immigrant and anti-minority rhetoric scarred societies.  They might offer instant political gratification in some quarters, but they resulted in divisions that cut deep.  Racist, discriminatory and xenophobic rhetoric made it even harder for minorities and outsiders to access equal opportunities and basic goods.  And so societies were cleaved and communities grew further apart.  Hate speech against migrants, and specific ethnic and religious groups led to violence.  Similarly, when Governments clamped down against grassroots activists, journalists and political opponents – or scrapped the guarantees of an independent judiciary – they were not acting to halt violent extremism.  They were dismantling the integrity of their societies and the people's trust and respect for fundamental institutions. 

High Commissioner Zeid urged policy-makers to deploy measures which ensured respect for human rights, which would extinguish violent extremism more effectively, and more sustainably, than any crackdown.  Justice and human rights were the essential foundation of loyalty.  He further urged Member States to rise above the crescendo of xenophobia and gather lessons from the great integrative forces of history.  Cities and civilizations had been irrigated by diversity, and had welcomed far greater movements of people in the past.  Structural injustice and discrimination continued to deprive millions of people of their right to development.  A shocking number of women were denied their fundamental equality, including their reproductive rights.  Far too many people were excluded from vital resources by prejudice and by the force of crushing inequalities.  The High Commissioner urged the Members of the Human Rights Council to act with courage and on principle, and to take a strong stand regarding the protection of civilians.  The increasing integration of human rights concerns, within development and all other United Nations activities, made it essential that the Council developed stronger ties to the Security Council and other bodies.  In its second decade, the Human Rights Council must have an important impact on world events – and help to ensure that the frightful human rights violations of today were not the prologue to even greater suffering and chaos tomorrow.

Statement by the Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland

DIDIER BURKHALTER, Federal Councillor, Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland, said that the age of the Human Rights Council, 10 years, was the age of childhood which should be a carefree time of hopeful discoveries.  But the international community was far from having achieved that reality for many children.  A solution to the Syrian crisis had to be found now.  Switzerland was committed to supporting mediation activities by, among other measures, hosting any meetings and negotiations.  While the fears of populations receiving migrants needed to be considered, the international community should never lose sight of human dignity; it was essential to reinforce the protections and rights of migrants, especially child migrants.  Fundamental rights were under pressure in many countries, he said, not just in countries experiencing crisis, but also wherever terrorism existed.  The international community had to fight terrorism at its root, through values and by reaffirming human rights throughout the world. 

In April in Geneva, Switzerland would be organizing a conference to discuss the prevention of violent extremism, among other topics.  Switzerland also supported the efforts of the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund.  Switzerland was fighting the use of the death penalty, he said, adding that it was not a dignified or effective response to terrorism, but rather reinforced a climate of violence and a culture of death, both of which were precisely what terrorism sought to infuse into societies.  The Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs had launched today a new human rights strategy aimed at the effective and real implementation of human rights.  More 10-year old children should have the right to keep dreaming, he said, adding that human rights violations were always a marker for potential instability or conflict escalation, and often paved the way to the worst tragedies.  That was why Switzerland intended to launch an appeal to optimize communication and operational channels between the Human Rights Council and the Security Council in order to enhance conflict prevention.

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