Do not erode essential international institutions and laws, Zeid urges Human Rights Council

Address by High Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein to the Human Rights Council on 30 November 2016

Thank you Mr President,
Good morning, Excellencies, Colleagues and friends,

I thank you for this opportunity to discuss with you several recent developments and situations that deserve our joint attention. Many of these topics follow on from missions conducted by myself, Deputy High Commissioner Kate Gilmore, and our newly named Assistant Secretary-General, Andrew Gilmour, who we are glad to have on board. He will brief you on his mission last week to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and his appointment by the Secretary General as the system-wide focal point on reprisals; while the Deputy High Commissioner will discuss our recent and pressing concerns in Iraq, as well as the human rights situation in Honduras, where we have just established a country office.

During my mission to Colombia in September, I observed a number of positive trends. They included a fundamental sense of compromise for the greater good, and a vision of consensus that included recognition of the harm inflicted on victims and communities by human rights abuses and violations.

Following the concerns expressed by Colombians who voted against the peace agreement last month, talks continued between the Government and the FARC, adjustments were made, a new peace accord was signed last week and the Senate, yesterday, approved it. The parties to the conflict have requested that OHCHR play a significant role in assisting implementation of the peace agreement, which has a strong focus on human rights.

We will be honoured to continue to assist Colombia in establishing peace based on sound human rights principles, and we will maintain our assistance and vigilance. I am concerned that a joint communiqué by the Government and FARC has modified the peace accord by restricting the international legal definition of command responsibility, and I look forward to discussing this and other issues with the authorities. I also trust that negotiations with the ELN will be revived. Colombia faces a pressing challenge in several rural areas where demobilisation of the FARC has left a lawless space for criminal gangs to seize control of illegal economic activities. My Office has documented 57 killings this year, in attacks that particularly target community leaders and human rights defenders; this month alone, we are verifying reports of three such incidents, in which four people were killed.

OHCHR looks forward to contributing to a determined effort on the part of all Colombia's institutions to reintroduce the protection of rule of law institutions across the country, fight criminality, promote accountability and ensure universal access to basic services. It will be essential that victims, conflict-affected communities and social activists continue to participate in building peace.

I also travelled recently to The Hague, where I spoke to the Assembly of States Parties to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. As you know, three States that have ratified the Rome Statute have announced plans to withdraw, while a fourth which had not ratified the Statute plans to renege on its initial signature. These withdrawals, in my view, are a betrayal of the rights of victims of the most grave human rights violations. I urged the States Parties to stand by the Court – as many have declared they will.

I also urge you to continue to stand by this Council. Amid the current contradictions, and even chaos, of world events, there is an obvious, pressing need for this Council to maintain and deepen the integrity of its voice to protect and uphold human rights around the world. Like many of you here, I was relieved to learn that recent actions, the consequences of which would undermine the Council’s legitimacy, were unsuccessful. It is essential to maintain consensus on the authority of the Council’s collective decisions.

At the 33rd session of the Council, I formally reported on challenges faced by the Office in seeking access to a number of specific areas of concern. I will provide a further formal report to you on that question at a later date. For now, I will say only that there has been no significant improvement regarding access. Indeed, some of our concerns have worsened. Most shockingly, my Office has no access to any area of Syria, even as the vast majority of the people of eastern Aleppo are still trapped in a sharply worsening siege. Pounded by accelerating bombardment, deliberately deprived of food and medical care, many of them – including small children – report that they are simply waiting for death: a nightmare which clearly violates the most basic norms of human rights and any shred of human decency.

I have been struck by a recent erosion of consensus upholding many of the international institutions and laws which help to maintain social cohesion within States, and peaceful, constructive relations between them. The international institutions set up by States are imperfect, but they are a bulwark against worse chaos. To erode their legitimacy and impede their action threatens essential forces for moderation and progress – at a time of heightened risk. Global instability, which is fed by inequalities, oppression, deprivation and exploitation, affects all your people, rich and poor alike. Your States have established international institutions because these threats cannot possibly be resolved by any one State alone.

And yet such institutions are being ignored, neglected or attacked. For example, two key follow-up mechanisms to the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action – the Intergovernmental Working Group and the Ad Hoc Committee on the Elaboration of Complementary Standards – recently effected their 13th and 8th sessions, respectively. Once again, both these sessions were marked by reduced attendance by delegations, and neither gave rise to significant progress in pursuit of their mandates.

Comprehensive and effective implementation of the Durban Declaration is more vital than ever today. Xenophobia and incitement to racial, national and religious hatred are accelerating in many States – influencing policy and humiliating and oppressing millions of people. When States came together at Durban 15 years ago, they knew that a comprehensive strategy to address the roots of all forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance would be essential to their own interests, as well as their people. It remains urgent that States honour their obligations to fight discrimination under international human rights law, as well as the commitments they made at Durban.

Many of my recent missions to Western Europe and North America have included discussions of increasingly worrying levels of incitement to racial or religious hatred and violence, whether against migrants or racial and religious groups. Discrimination, and the potential for mob violence is being stoked by political leaders for their personal benefit, and the number of recorded hate crimes appears to be rising in several States.

In response, I am pleased to inform you that on Human Rights Day, my Office will be launching a global public-information campaign. Against the forces of mutual suspicion and distrust, we need to nurture tolerance and respect, as well as stronger awareness of the universal capacity of everyone to stand up for the rights of others in daily life.

I learned a very simple lesson when I served in the former Yugoslavia, in the 1990s. Hate, at a certain pitch, becomes extremely difficult to control. Today, I fear that the deliberate cultivation and intensification of the volcanic forces of hatred will hasten violence. Violence within countries – because this is the force which drives social division into social warfare; or violence between them, in a clash of nationalisms.

Do we want a world without recognition of basic guarantees of human dignity? With no accountability for States to protect the rights of their people, or moderating forces to uphold international norms? A world of oppression, exploitation and violence; of unilateral and violent action; where millions of people are crushed or driven to seek basic guarantees of life wherever they can? Surely it would be infinitely more responsible to seek cooperation, in the pursuit of the interests we all share.

International law and international institutions were drawn up to protect States and the world's people from the scourge of war. They protect smaller States against aggression and the pure expression of power. They protect human beings.

Mr President,

Allow me to turn now to two especially worrying situations.

In Burundi, a worst-case scenario looms before us, with growing fear among the population, a swelling exodus of refugees, and sharply curtailed engagement by the Government with the international community. Since the September release of the independent experts’ report, measures have been taken to further restrict democratic space, including bans and suspensions of NGOs. The Government has also announced plans to launch a review of the “ethnic balance” in all public and semi-public institutions, requiring all staff to declare their ethnic identity – a potentially very dangerous move. Humanitarian agencies have reported a massive increase of refugees in the last four months, from 270,000 in July to 325,000 as of last week.

In Myanmar, I am alarmed by credible reports – which are as yet unverified by the UN – alleging extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, sexual violence and massive destruction of houses, in the context of security operations in northern Rakhine State. These operations, which were sparked by an attack on three border posts by unknown assailants on 9 October, have also led to the displacement of up to 30,000 members of the Rohingya community over the past seven weeks. As in any country, if security operations violate the people’s fundamental human rights, they will deepen grievances and may lead to far greater violence. Respect for human rights norms is the only possible way to ensure real and sustainable security in Myanmar. I regret that the Government, beyond establishing the Advisory Commission led by Kofi Annan, has as yet not acted on the recommendations made in our June report on the situation of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar.

Mr President,

I encourage the Council and Member States to do everything possible to prevent these and other situations from deteriorating.

Furthermore, as this turbulent year draws to a close I urge all Member States to consider that the only way to further peace, and to advance solutions for global problems, is to act collectively for the common good. The pursuit of narrow interests and agendas at the expense of all other States will do tremendous damage, both to States' interests, and to their peoples.

With your permission Mr President, I will pass the microphone to my Deputy.

30 November 2016

See also