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Human Rights Council opens its thirty-fourth session and hears from the United Nations Secretary-General

MORNING

President of the General Assembly, High Commissioner for Human Rights and Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland also Address the Council
 
GENEVA (27 February 2017) - The Human Rights Council this morning opened its thirty-fourth regular session, hearing an address by António Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, who stressed the important role of the Human Rights Council in addressing the disregard for human rights worldwide.
 
The Council also heard addresses by Peter Thomson, President of the General Assembly; Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; and Didier Burkhaulter, Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland, who spoke on behalf of the host country.
 
Joaquin Alexander Maza Martelli, President of the Human Rights Council, opened the thirty-fourth session and welcomed the largest participation of dignitaries in the high-level segment ever, namely 107 dignitaries, and in particular 11 delegates from least developed countries and small island States, whose participation in the Council was supported by the Voluntary Assistance Trust Fund.
 
António Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General, stressed the important role of the Human Rights Council in addressing the disregard for human rights worldwide, noting especially its pivotal role in prevention by sounding early warning alarms, its response to human rights violations through its commissions of inquiry and fact-finding missions, the scrutiny by its independent experts, engagement with civil society, and the Universal Periodic Review through which every country in the world had its human rights record thoroughly examined.  The challenges of today’s increasingly dangerous, unpredictable and chaotic world – the multiplication of conflicts and their interconnectedness with the threat of global terrorism and violent extremism, human rights abuses, and massive inequalities within and between States – could only be tackled if prevention was made the priority, argued the Secretary-General.  This included not only addressing the root causes of conflict and reacting early to human rights concerns, but also actively promoting human rights and strengthening States, institutions and civil society.
 
Peter Thomson, President of the General Assembly, said that the global effort to protect and promote human rights must never be allowed to diminish.  It was clear that sustaining peace and development were the two sides of the same coin.  He urged the international community to work on how to provide security to refugees and to protect vulnerable groups from the rising tide of xenophobia and intolerance.  Ensuring accountability for human rights violations and their monitoring was thus of utmost importance.  The central theme of the seventy-first session of the General Assembly was achieving a momentum on the 2030 Development Agenda which envisaged the end of extreme poverty, increased prosperity, empowerment of women, and climate change; its 17 Sustainable Development Goals were infused in the essence of universal human rights.
 
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, reminded that the principle of non-discrimination was enshrined in the United Nations Charter in the second paragraph of the preamble, and that human rights, placed in the preamble of the Charter, had been viewed as the necessary starting condition.  The High Commissioner recalled what the world had achieved over seven decades and what everyone stood to lose if threats to choke off universal human rights succeeded: end to colonialism, and segregation and apartheid; reassertion of the rights of a free and independent press and strengthening of social protection; and coming to the fore of the rights of women, children, indigenous peoples, and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community, and many others who were determined to be free from discrimination and injustice.  But it was the assertion of the universality of rights in human rights law that was the most noteworthy. 
 
Didier Burkhaulter, Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs in Switzerland, speaking on behalf of the host country, noted that human rights – and not more violence and restrictions - were the response for peace, prosperity and security for all; this response must be common for all.  Switzerland proposed three priorities for dialogue and action on human rights: investing more in preventing conflict and reducing threats to peace and security; strengthening the capacity for collective action for human rights, including through ensuring that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had the means to fulfil its mandate, and through supporting collective action initiatives; and the fight against impunity for human rights violations, and for justice and sustainable peace, including supporting the new international mechanism created in Geneva for the investigation of most serious human rights violations committed in Syria since March 2011.
 
The Human Rights Council is holding a full day of meetings today.  At 11 a.m., it will start its high-level segment.
 
Opening Statements
 
JOAQUIN ALEXANDER MAZA MARTELLI, President of the Human Rights Council, announced the opening of the session.  Noting that the March session was considered the most important session of the year, Mr. Maza Martelli said that the President of the General Assembly, the United Nations Secretary-General, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland would provide opening statements, to be followed by the high-level segment.  He welcomed the largest participation of dignitaries ever in the high-level segment, namely 107 dignitaries.  This underscored the importance that all attached to the work of the Human Rights Council and to the human rights agenda of the United Nations as a whole.  It was a privilege and great honour for himself and for El Salvador to be entrusted with presiding over this august body.  The President welcomed 11 delegates from least developed countries and small island States, beneficiaries of the Voluntary Assistance Trust Fund, which was key in ensuring equal participation in the work of the Human Rights Council.
 
PETER THOMSON, President of the General Assembly, expressed profound thanks to the Human Rights Council for the work it did.  The global effort to protect and promote human rights must never be allowed to diminish.  As the international community grappled with how to best preserve peace, human rights abuses needed to be prevented.  Conflict prevention was at the core of the United Nations’ work, in particular sustaining peace and development, which were the two sides of the same coin.  Abuse of human rights was at the centre of almost all armed conflict, and accordingly conflict prevention had strong resonance in the field of human rights.  In the times of the greatest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, the international community had to work on how to provide security to refugees and to protect vulnerable groups from the rising tide of xenophobia and intolerance.  It went without saying that the work of the human rights community and the Council was vital in achieving those goals.  Ensuring accountability for human rights violations and their monitoring was thus of utmost importance.  Mr. Thomson also stressed the importance of the Voluntary Assistance Trust Fund, adding that greater collaboration and partnership from all relevant parties was needed to promote peace, development and human rights.  There was a need for closer collaboration between Geneva and New York, ensuring that the human rights expertise in Geneva was fully integrated into the work of the United Nations system, including the United Nations field offices.  He reminded that the central theme of the seventy-first session of the General Assembly was the achievement of momentum on all 17 Sustainable Development Goals.  The 2030 Development Agenda envisaged the end of extreme poverty, increased prosperity, empowerment of women, and climate change effectively addressed.   The 17 Sustainable Development Goals were infused in the essence of universal human rights.  Those goals would be put in jeopardy without respect for human rights, Mr. Thomson concluded.   
 
ANTÓNIO GUTERRES, United Nations Secretary-General, stated that this was a time of urgency, in which the disease of disregard for human rights was spreading – north, south, east and west.  He stressed that the Human Rights Council must be part of the cure, through its pivotal role for prevention; sounding early warnings of crises; its commissions of inquiry and fact-finding missions responding to serious allegations of human rights violations around the world; the scrutiny and recommendations of its independent experts which shed light, enhanced protection and guided policy; its growing engagement with civil society which was especially vital at a time when civil society space was shrinking in so many places; and through the Universal Periodic Review in which every country in the world had its human rights record thoroughly examined.  Despite differences among members, the Council was based on a shared understanding that upholding the rights of all people was in the interest of all States.  Human rights – civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights -- must never be seen as a luxury or “saved for later”, after peace and development were achieved.  Human rights were an intrinsic part of all that we did, and all that we were, stressed Mr. Guterres.  And so, all must speak up for human rights in an impartial way without double standards; the world must invest in human rights; and human rights must be recognized as values and goals unto themselves, not allowing them to be instrumentalized as a political tool.  Indeed, the integrity and credibility of this Council would only be enhanced by proceeding in a manner that avoided the imbalanced treatment of Member States.
 
In the increasingly dangerous, unpredictable and chaotic world, in which conflicts were multiplying and increasingly interconnected with the threat of global terrorism and violent extremism, violations of human rights were early and leading indicators of crisis, while human rights abuses played into the hands of extremists.  At the same time, violations of economic rights -- such as massive inequalities within and between States – were a growing source of social unrest.  In order to truly address these challenges, prevention must be made the priority: tackling root causes of conflict and reacting earlier and more effectively in addressing human rights concerns.  That was the lesson of so many conflicts and the driving force behind the Human Rights up Front initiative, said Mr. Guterres.  Just as denial of human rights was part of the problem, the active promotion of human rights was part of the solution.  That meant supporting Member States in building capacity: strengthening states, institutions and civil society.  Perhaps the best prevention tool the world had was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – and the treaties that derived from it: the rights set out in it identified many of the root causes of conflict, but equally they provided real world solutions through real change on the ground.
 
The Human Rights Council should be fully engaged and help affect that change on the range of issues, including deliberate and systematic violations of international humanitarian law in a growing number of conflicts; the perverse phenomenon of populism and extremism feeding off each other in a frenzy of growing racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim hatred and other forms of intolerance; discrimination and abuse against minorities,  indigenous communities, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons; the attacks on the rights of refugees and migrants, and the rise in human trafficking.
 
With so many people escaping war, the international community must not escape its responsibilities and the world must do its utmost to re-establish the integrity of the international refugee protection regime.  The challenge was not “sharing the burden”, but “sharing the responsibility”, the collective responsibility embedded in the shared values and the Charter.  All must forcefully resist calls to reinstate torture and turn back efforts to reinstate capital punishment.  The full participation of women and girls was crucial, said the Secretary-General, noting his commitment to establishing a clear road map with benchmarks to achieve gender parity across the United Nations system, and also announcing the ambitious new steps to help end sexual exploitation and abuse committed under the United Nations flag.  Hard fought gains on women's rights were being chipped away – whether it was through a pushback on women’s reproductive rights or turning a blind eye to domestic violence or violently enforcing traditional gender roles.  Mr. Guterres also made a special appeal for the rights of children, stressing that children were the main victims of war and crises, and that more than half of the world’s refugees were children.
 
More must be done to ensure equal attention to economic, social and cultural rights. 
The corpus of human rights was indivisible and interdependent, and it was not possible to pick and choose, emphasizing some and ignoring others, said the Secretary-General.  The 2030 Agenda provided an ideal platform to demonstrate the commitment to all human rights, and at its core was the right to development.  The right to quality education, housing, food, water, equal access to employment – these and other economic and social rights could and must be realized.
 
Mr. Guterres then expressed his appreciation and admiration to those on the frontlines of promoting human rights, human rights defenders, and he also reminded Member States of their responsibility to ensure that human rights defenders could operate without fear of intimidation.  Journalists were an essential part of the checks and balances of any society, and they, too, must be guaranteed full protection in law and practice to do their vital work independently and without interference.  In closing, the Secretary-General said that the struggle for human rights was at its heart a struggle to expand the horizons of the possible, to bring out the best of ourselves and to unleash the best of our societies.  “Human rights inspire.  Human rights transform.  Human rights drive progress and change the course of history,” he said, and reiterated the determination to raise the profile of human rights, to speak out whenever necessary, and to defend the defenders. 
 
ZEID RA’AD AL HUSSEIN, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, reminded that the principle of non-discrimination was enshrined in the United Nations Charter in the second paragraph of the preamble.  Human rights were placed in the preamble of the Charter not as the last or a third pillar or as some literary flourish.  They had been viewed as the necessary starting condition.  When a State acceded to a human rights treaty, enshrined those obligations in constitutional and domestic law, and implemented them, then with the passage of time the average citizen could take them for granted.  It was worth recalling what the world had achieved over seven decades and what everyone stood to lose if threats to choke off universal human rights succeeded.  After the creation of the United Nations, ground-breaking multilateral rights-based treaties had been negotiated and adopted.  Today they were reinforced by the Council, with its independent experts and Universal Periodic Review.  The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, working with regional and national institutions and civil society at all levels, tied it together as one system, which was commonly referred to as the normative framework of international human rights law, for the promotion and protection of human rights for all people everywhere.  
 
After the Second World War, colonialism had ended, and segregation and apartheid had been removed.  Pervasive dictatorial rule had been rolled back, and the rights of an independent and free press had been re-asserted.  Social protections had been strengthened.  Women’s and children’s rights had come to the fore, and so had the rights of indigenous people and of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community, and many others were determined to be free from discrimination and injustice.  Of all the great post-war achievements, it was the assertion of the universality of rights in human rights law that was the most noteworthy.  Ever-growing numbers of people nowadays knew that torture was prohibited in all circumstances, that arbitrary arrest and detention, the denial of due process, and repression of peaceful protests and free speech were violations of rights.  They knew they had a right to development, to decent food, water, health, housing, education and more.  The unprecedented marches of 21 January this year had not been about a particular individual or government, although many saw them as such.  They had been for the rights of women, the human rights of women, for all of us, for a fair and inclusive humanity.  To those political actors who, as in the days of the League, threatened the multilateral system or intended to withdraw from parts of it, the sirens of historical experience had to ring clear.  The international community would not sit idly by because there was much to lose and so much to protect.  The rights of all and the very future of our planet could not and should not be thrown aside by those reckless political profiteers. 
 
DIDIER BURKHAULTER, Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs in Switzerland, said that the world today was more predictable and harsher, conflict areas were transforming in lawless spaces – in Syria, Yemen, South Sudan and elsewhere, the population was suffering and humanitarian organizations and hospitals were targeted.  Men, women and children, by millions, had to flee and take dangerous roads of migration, where once again human rights were erased by violence.  Faced with terrorist violence, many States were responding with more violence: limitations on civil society, the death penalty, and return to torture.  The world was also more unpredictable with regards to liberties: the freedom of expression and opinion became dangerous, making the calls for freedom less audible.  The international framework for human rights was being increasingly questioned and there was less will for a collective action.  But more freedoms and more cooperation were needed, to strengthen the ties that linked humans to each other.  Human rights were precisely the response for peace, prosperity and security for all, and this response must be common for all.
 
Switzerland proposed three priorities for dialogue and action on human rights.  The first was to invest more in preventing conflict and reducing threats to peace and security.  Switzerland was investing in prevention and strengthening the capacity for mediation, including through the development of a master programme for mediation in peace in the Zurich Federal Polytechnic School.  The Human Rights Council could play a crucial role in prevention if it was adequately heard, and there was a need to strengthen the relationship between Geneva and New York.  The second priority was strengthening the capacity for collective action for human rights.  The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights must have the means to fulfil its mandate and Switzerland would increase its contributions to the Office this year.  As a member of the Council, Switzerland would make a contribution to the functioning of the Council, and would undergo its Universal Periodic Review this year.  The development of the Global Compact on Migration was an opportunity to address the root causes of migration, reduce vulnerabilities of migrants and uphold the human rights of migrants as a solution to the problem.  Switzerland was ready to strongly support the Compact and to make available the expertise of the Geneva platform.  And finally, the third priority was the fight against impunity for human rights violations, and for justice and sustainable peace.   Switzerland would therefore finance a new international mechanism created in Geneva for the investigation of most serious human rights violations committed in Syria since March 2011, and so ensure that a climate of impunity did not persist.

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For use of the information media; not an official record