Navi Pillay delivered her first speech to the Human Rights Council, as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in September 2008. At the 26th session of the Council, in June 2014, her last, Pillay recalled her pledge of six years ago to safeguard the work of the Office based on the premise that its credibility depended on its commitment to truth, with no tolerance for double standards.
Urging continuing support for the independence of the Human Rights Office, Pillay said the stature of the Office “as an authoritative voice on human rights is attributable to its integrity and its insistence on freedom from political influence.”
In a speech, focusing on current crises and the ongoing human rights priorities, Pillay identified areas where progress has been achieved but she criticized the difficulties experienced by her Office in attempting to shed light on violations.
Calls for investigations into human rights abuses, the analysis and reporting done by her Office had often been greeted with “stone-walling and denial”, she said. “Surely that is the nature of human rights advocacy, to speak truth to power; to confront privilege and entrenched hierarchy with an unshakeable belief inhuman dignity, equality and freedom,” Pillay said.
The High Commissioner came to the post as head of the UN Human Rights Office from a ground-breaking career as an international jurist and as an activist for the rights of women in her home country of South Africa and globally.
The first woman to start a law practice in her home province of Natal, Pillay went on to become the first non-white woman appointed to the South African High Court. She served as a judge of the International Criminal Court and President of the International Criminal Court of Rwanda. Pillay has also been a prominent activist, helping to draft the equality clause in the South African Constitution, which prohibits discrimination and co-founding the international women’s rights organisation, Equality Now.
In her address, Pillay identified a number of achievements that have distinguished her term as High Commissioner.
Appointed just two years after the creation of the Council, formerly the United Nations Human Rights Commission, Pillay said it had brought “strength and flexibility to the international human rights system”. She singled out the Universal Periodic Review, the system whereby States regularly report on progress in compliance with the international treaties of which they are parties, as being remarkably successful.
As a significant reform, Pillay also singled out the treaty body strengthening process, an exhaustive dialogue and review, which has resulted in a more streamlined, cost-effective system. The treaty bodies, committees of independent experts, review implementation of the core international human rights treaties.
However, despite progress over the past six years, there remain entrenched and new situations of violations of human rights, of the most serious nature, including war crimes and crimes against humanity, Pillay said.
The High Commissioner reserved her strongest comments for the civil war in Syria, which since it began in March 2011, has resulted in the loss of more than 100,000 lives and the internal displacement of more than six and a half million of its citizens. “The relentless violence in the Syrian Arab Republic is a tragedy for the Syrian people and a tragic failure for the cause of human rights,” Pillay said in her address.
She expressed outrage at conditions in Aleppo, the largest city in Syria, now rebel-held and largely reduced to rubble: “The people of Aleppo live in conditions that should outrage the conscience of humanity. I deplore the fact that repeated calls to end the violence, and seek a just and peaceful solution, have been ignored by the Syrian Government and by some opposition groups; and also that external powers continue to fuel this violence through the supply of arms, military and other material assistance, as well as inflows of foreign fighters.”
She was disappointed, Pillay said, that the Security Council had been unable to agree on action it could take to counter the war crimes and crimes against humanity which have become “commonplace”.
Her Office has been at the centre of efforts to persuade states to prohibit the death penalty and Pillay welcomed recent progress noting that Equatorial Guinea, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and the States of Washington, Maryland and Connecticut in the United States have either established a moratorium or suspended executions. However, Pillay also drew attention to two botched executions in the U.S. this year and deplored the execution of more than 200 people in Iran.
Promoting women’s rights has been central to the High Commssioner’s tenure. She highlighted recent outstanding examples of abuse – the abduction of hundreds of school girls in Nigeria and the murder, in Pakistan of a 23 year old woman, by family members, in front of the Lahore High Court and in front of police officers. “I condemn in the strongest possible terms the dishonorable practice of punishing women and girls for exercising their fundamental right to make personal decision regarding marriage, employment, finances and all other issues,” she said.
Pillay drew the attention of the Council to what she described as “an increase across the political spectrum in several states in Western Europe of a discourse rooted in anti-immigrant and racist sentiment and religious intolerance.”
“There is a road to perpetration of human rights violations. And hate speech – particularly by political leaders – is on that road,” she said.
Looking to the future, Pillay identified a number of major challenges. She called for a more consistent application of human rights principles in the economic sphere and emphasized the vigilance that must be applied to deal with corruption.
Terrorism is a clear challenge, she said but measures taken to counter it must protect the rule of law and human rights, not undermine them.
In the face of both government and corporate attempts to set up a “surveillance society,” Pillay warned extra vigilance will be required to safeguard the right to privacy.
Pillay reminded States that the establishment of the office of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights 20 years ago, was in recognition that an advocate was needed to promote and protect human rights.
“OHCHR stands at your side, not in your way,” she said. “It is a friend that is unafraid to speak the truth. This Office does not only seek to help States identify gaps in their human rights protection. It also assists States to repair the, and to pursue policies that promote equality, dignity, development and the resolution of conflict.”
“It has been an honour to serve,” she said.
10 June 2014