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Statement to the Third Committee by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein High Commissioner for Human Rights

16 October 2017

Distinguished Chairperson,
Excellencies, Colleagues,

I am honoured to present the report of work accomplished by my Office between August 2016 and July 2017.

In a context of rising turmoil, I am proud that my Office and collegues have made a real difference in several countries, assisting national authorities, democratic institutions and civil society to uphold human dignity and rights. Today I propose to highlight a few examples of the work of our 57 field presences around the world – including 15 country offices; 13 human rights components of peace missions; 12 Regional Offices or centres; and 17 human rights advisers to United Nations Country Teams.

Rule of law institutions in Cambodia

The OHCHR Cambodia Country Office is our oldest field presence, and its work over the years illustrates the ways in which well-targeted and demonstrably useful technical cooperation builds trust with partners, following on from in-depth monitoring work. For example, projects initiated with partners in 2008 to introduce essential infrastructure improvements in a number of prisons have progressively evolved into support for broader prison reform initiatives – feeding in turn into wider dialogue about criminal justice and rule of law policy across the country.

We are currently assisting the authorities to expand a criminal case database to ensure nationwide coverage by 2019, and thus facilitate case management within courts and between prisons and courts; we train judges and lawyers in human rights law; and we are providing substantive contributions to long term improvement of conditions of detention, including through advocacy work on reducing pre-trial detention, and technical assistance in developing a legal aid policy and clearing the backlog of prisoners pending appeal. I remain hopeful that, building on this solid experience of cooperation, we will be able to address concerns of civil and political rights in Cambodia in the lead-up to the elections in 2018 and beyond.

Femicide in Central America

In 2010, the issue of gender-related killings in El Salvador and Panama was identified as a priority issue by our Regional Office for Central America. By the following year, we had drawn up a specific protocol for investigation of femicide in El Salvador, with the help of judges, prosecutors, lawyers, police, forensic experts, victims and civil society. Building on the usefulness of the El Salvador protocol, our Regional Office then began a thorough region-wide consultation process, and, together with UN Women, we supported the development of a Model Protocol for investigation of gender-related deaths of women. This Model Protocol has been widely adopted by justice officials across the region, and is studied within training programmes and administrative studies curricula in numerous countries – including Argentina, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Panama. In coordination with UNDP, we also recently set up virtual training on the Model Protocol, with a first online session held in Argentina in March 2017, and a second currently underway for 220 public officials who deal with femicide cases in Central America.

Protecting the rights of migrants

My Office has been deeply involved in promoting human rights based approaches to migration – globally, regionally, and on the national level. We have played a leading role in supporting the historic negotiation of a global compact on safe, orderly and regular migration. With UN sister agencies, we developed guidelines and a compendium of good practices to help States and other stakeholders respond more effectively and appropriately to the needs of vulnerable people on the move who are not able to benefit from refugee standards but nonetheless need protection of their human rights.

My Office has fielded monitoring missions to a series of European border and transit locations, including in Bulgaria, France, Greece, Italy and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, to assess the human rights protection needs of migrants on the basis of the Recommended Principles and Guidelines on human rights at international borders developed by my Office in 2014. My Regional Office for Europe continues to provide technical assistance to the EU and its Member States, to boost integration of human rights in their external and internal action, including in the context of the EU’s recent mid-term review of its Agenda on Migration. Other recent work has focused on ensuring respect for due process and other international standards in returns procedures. We have given training to front-line responders, Government officials and national human rights institutions on specialised and practical aspects of human rights law, including to personnel of the EU Naval Force in the Mediterranean on human rights of migrants and human rights in law enforcement.

We also work very closely with UN partners and national authorities in all other regions to integrate the human rights of migrants across their programming. Just last week we completed a mission to assess protection needs for migrants in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. In Tunisia, we assisted the convening of a national consultation to assess indicators intended to gauge respect for migrants’ rights to health, education and decent work. With UNSMIL, we recently published a report on the shocking abuses and violations suffered by migrants in Libya – which I discussed with the authorities in Tripoli last week – as a baseline to guide policy and practise. We have also conducted a monitoring mission to Nauru, and met with migrants stranded both in Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, continuing to share our concerns and recommendations with the Government of Australia. 

Rapid response in Bangladesh

On two occasions this year, faced with massive movements of people from Myanmar’s Rohingya community to Bangladesh, I have sent rapid expert teams to interview refugees in Bangladesh, report on violations, and assess their current situation and challenges ahead. Although the Myanmar authorities have consistently refused access to the region for all human rights investigators, our reports continue to provide essential and timely information to Member States and the Security Council. In the meantime, the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar established by the Human Rights Council is operational and its work is underway. In the longer term, my staff will continue to seek to further prevention of and accountability for human rights violations, and will coordinate with the authorities in Bangladesh and humanitarian actors to ensure adequate integration of human rights in the ongoing humanitarian operations.

Over the past year I have also deployed a reporting team to Angola, to interview refugees fleeing violent attacks in the Kasai provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo – work which led the Human Rights Council to mandate a new team of international experts to more deeply investigate the situation. In the absence of access, I established a team to conduct remote monitoring on the human rights situation in Venezuela, in the context of country-wide demonstrations.

Right to food and access to land in Malawi

The full integration of accepted human rights recommendations into the UN's Development Assistance Frameworks provides very significant leverage for human rights concerns, and ensures that follow-up will be coherent and consequential. For example, in Malawi, important work has been undertaken by the human rights adviser and the UN country team to advance implementation of recommendations made by the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food.

They supported the review and revision of the draft Food and Nutrition Bill, through technical and legal advice, briefings for Members of Parliament and nation-wide consultations. We are also assisting the Government to advance the implementation of recently adopted landmark national legislation, particularly aimed at ensuring women’s increased access to land.

Peace-building and combatting violent extremism in Mali

Peace cannot be established and sustained in the absence of human rights protection, and human rights are pivotal to the work of all components of UN peacekeeping missions. In Mali, faced with a highly volatile context including attacks by numerous armed groups, MINUSMA's Human Rights Division ensures swift and in-depth investigations into serious reports of violations, including of international humanitarian law; it monitors the conditions of conflict-related detainees; it supports establishment of effective transitional justice mechanisms; and it advises parties to the 2015 peace agreement.

The Human Rights Division also focuses on promoting proportionate and targeted counter-terrorism operations in compliance with international legal obligations and the UN human rights due diligence policy, and advises the authorities on ways to end to the discriminatory treatment towards specific communities which has contributed to the growth of violent extremism. To further assist efforts towards accountability and transitional justice, a mapping report on alleged violations committed in Mali between 2012 and 2014 will be issued in the coming months.

Accountability in Syria

The conflict in Syria remains the most devastating conflict of our era, a tragedy of historic proportions. My office continues to support the unprecedented work of the Human Rights Council's International Independent Commission of Inquiry, which has been documenting and reporting on violations and abuses since 2011.

Faced with the Government's refusal to enable access to Syria, my Office has also established a Syria Team – essentially a virtual country office, located in Beirut, Gaziantep, Amman and Geneva, and including monitoring teams and human rights advisers to the UN Country Teams and humanitarian operations.

This year, my Office supported the establishment and operationalisation of the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of those Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes under International Law committed in the Syrian Arab Republic – a new and unique body mandated by the General Assembly to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyse evidence of alleged crimes committed in Syria, to facilitate future criminal proceedings.

Distinguished Chair,

With these illustrations of our field-work, I hope I have managed to portray the range and importance of the practical impact of the work performed by my colleagues in the field, particularly when our field presences have become well-rooted, over many years.

In addition to drawing on the expertise in monitoring and guidance developed by my Office, this is work that draws deeply on the recommendations of the human rights mechanisms – including the Treaty Bodies and the Human Rights Council's Special Procedures and UPR. My Office is determined to do everything in its capacity to ensure comprehensive implementation of recommendations from all human rights mechanisms, including, in the third round of the UPR, through suggesting lines of action.

In the context of the treaty body strengthening process, the General Assembly has already recognized the need for the treaty bodies to move closer to the field, and specialized colleagues deployed to our Regional Offices in this context have been able to help States fulfill their obligations. Our support for establishment of National Mechanisms for Reporting and Follow-Up is another tool for optimised follow-up, and we will continue to engage with UN Country Teams and others to ensure that recommendations feed into their work. The Secretary-General's reform efforts, and his commitment to prevention and the 2030 Agenda, present a tremendous opportunity to ensure that human rights are no longer viewed as ancillary but are recognized as central to successful and sustainable development, peace and security.

Here in New York, our office has slightly expanded and working with Member States and other UN colleagues to help to bring a human rights perspective into the other two pillars of the organization: peace and security; and development. There is much progress in this regard. The head of our New York Office, Andrew Gilmour, also has a system-wide role coordinating UN efforts to address and prevent reprisals against people who cooperate with the UN. He presented the Secretary-General's report on this important topic to the Human Rights Council last month.

International human rights standards can and must continue to be translated into programmes on the ground. The world's people are crying out for more justice, greater accountability, more respect for civil, cultural, economic, social and political rights, as well as the right to development. With your support, we will endeavour to continue our assistance to Governments, regional and national institutions, civil society organizations and human rights defenders to uphold the rights of all people.

Thank you