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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Statement by Ms. Navanethem Pillay United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to Introduction of the Annual Report

03 March 2011

3 March 2011

Mr. President,
Distinguished Member of the Human Rights Council,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Human rights are too often discussed in abstract, technical or sometimes highly politicized terms.  The events in the Middle East and North Africa have proved how human rights matter and matter concretely in the lives of people.   Earlier this week, the influential speakers at the Human Rights Council’s High Level Segment took stock of the situation in that region and pledged tangible help.  I am very pleased with this outcome and stand ready to contribute to this effort.

The mounting humanitarian crisis at the border between Libya and Tunisia is now a priority of the highest order.  I reiterate the Secretary-General’s call and the appeals of other colleagues to muster all the resources needed to assist the thousands of people fleeing from Libya whose rights are at risk.

Civil society was at the forefront of the protest movements and it is now contributing to the relief effort in Tunisia and Egypt.  National and international nongovernmental organizations were instrumental in monitoring and documenting the shifting situations on the ground and providing humanitarian support.  This leadership and participation aptly illustrate the centrality of civil society in producing change and spurring international action.

During this period OHCHR’s performance was creditable, even though I know that much more diligence is required to improve the protection of human rights. We need to find new and better ways of working and to focus on tools that get results. We need to create multifaceted strategies to help each Member State reach full compliance with the human rights obligations they have voluntarily accepted. 

Mr. President,

My Annual Report now before you covers activities that OHCHR has undertaken last year in the framework of the thematic priorities I established for 2010/2011, and offers practical examples of our role in shaping the human rights agenda.

In my presentation today, I will highlight some of the report’s key issues. Other aspects of the report will, no doubt, engage us during our interactive dialogue.  I will also offer some updates.

Discrimination and Marginalized Groups

Discrimination remains an obstinate obstacle to the realization of human rights and the empowerment of the vulnerable.  Much of our focus has been on racial discrimination, particularly as a follow-up to the 2009 Durban Review Conference.   Accordingly, my Office provided technical assistance to States for the development of national action plans to counter racial discrimination, such as those undertaken by Bolivia and Uruguay. In addition, OHCHR has embarked on the task of providing support for the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action which will take place at the next session of the General Assembly.

Similarly, when the General Assembly proclaimed 2011 as the International Year for People of African Descent, my Office drafted a comprehensive Framework of Action and will be carrying out a number of activities accordingly.  People of African descent will be the focus and theme of this year’s commemoration of the International Day against Racial Discrimination.
In Central America my Office undertook a mapping of Afro-descendant organizations and representatives and is helping their efforts to strengthen capacities to participate in national dialogues and in the elaboration of policies that affect them.  We also seek to bolster these advocates’ ability to use international human rights mechanisms more effectively.

Discriminatory practices also penalize indigenous people, minorities, persons with disabilities, older persons, and others, groups and individuals, who are marginalized and stigmatized.  Too many people continue to be ostracized because of illness, such as leprosy or HIV-AIDS.  OHCHR works to counter intolerance in all its forms.

Migrants, especially those in an irregular situation, are particularly vulnerable to discrimination and are often denied access to essential public services. Yet, as the landmark joint statement adopted by the Global Migration Group last September makes clear, being in an irregular situation does not and should not deprive migrants either of their humanity or their human rights. Under OHCHR’s chairpersonship in the second half of 2010, the Global Migration Group focused particularly on advocating for the human rights of migrants, including those in an irregular situation.

OHCHR country and regional offices have also played a key role in promoting the human rights of migrants.  Our regional office in Beirut contributed to the development of a unified national contract for migrant domestic workers.  These workers represent a significant proportion of the labour force there, but do not enjoy the same rights as nationals in comparable occupations.

Today, all of us struggle to grasp the full implications of globalisation and the effects on cultural and social identities that the permeability of borders to the flow of people and ideas engender.  Regrettably, those that are identified as people who do not share a community’s history, traditions and values are all too often perceived negatively.  Against this background, and as the first part of a series, last month my Office organized an expert workshop on the prohibition of incitement to national, racial or religious hatred to better understand the contours and implications of such prohibition.

Let me take this opportunity to express my dismay at the recent assassination of Pakistani public figures, the latest being the murder this week of Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti.  The victims had received death threats for their opposition to the blasphemy law.   

I have often remarked that violence and abuse against women and girls are not confined to any particular country or any specific social environment. They are often the product of multiple forms of discrimination in law and practice that affect women everywhere, but that in some cases reach alarming proportions, as illustrated by the joint OHCHR/UNAMA report on “Harmful Traditional Practices and Implementation of the Law on Elimination of Violence against Women in Afghanistan”.

These are also the reasons that prompted me to convene a high-level panel to go  to the Democratic Republic of Congo to hear directly from, and engage in a dialogue with, victims of sexual violence regarding their needs and their perceptions of remedies and reparations available to them. The panel, chaired by the Deputy High Commissioner, submitted a mission report and recommendations which I sent to the Government of the DRC. The report will be made public at 13:00 today.

Violent Strife and Impunity

When discrimination, xenophobia, and intolerance are left to fester unchecked and unrestrained, they may escalate into communal violence and even large-scale conflict.

The protection of civilians affected by conflict is an essential element of any meaningful concept of peace and security.  We must recognize that this imperative means, first and foremost, protecting the human rights of individuals according to international law.

OHCHR is a major actor in the implementation of Security Council mandates for the protection of civilians. This requires securing robust mandates for the protection and promotion of human rights in peacekeeping missions.  To strengthen the effective integration of human rights in the United Nations peace and security agenda, OHCHR has developed active partnerships throughout the UN system.   Further, and to avoid a relapse into conflict when missions drawdown, we need to work with peace-building institutions to ensure that protection gaps are filled and peace is made sustainable, that the rule of law is strengthened and the security sector respects human rights. 

Let me also recall that I have advocated, and will continue to advocate, for all those detained in Guantanamo and other detention centers to receive a fair trial before the regular courts.  I have also urged accountability for those who have ordered practices analogous to torture or carried them out. 

Poverty and Disempowerment

Poverty and disempowerment are often underlying causes of violence and instability.  Fighting these scourges was a central aim of the summit, which I attended, that assessed progress on the realization of the Millennium Development Goals last September.  I took advantage of that high profile platform to reiterate that human rights principles, such as equality, participation, accountability and the rule of law, are instrumental to empower people to count and be counted and thus ensure that development takes firm root. 

As our thematic study on maternal mortality demonstrates, achieving Goal 5, that is, improving maternal health, requires recognition of human rights. The summit debated this theme and, more broadly, its Outcome Document recognized that all Member States are bound to respect human rights in their development and aid policies and assess the human rights impact of such strategies.
Let me take this opportunity to note that the current rise in food prices now casts an ominous shadow over the ability of the poorest to make ends meet.  We must exercise utmost vigilance to avoid a repetition of the 2008 crisis.

States can do much to protect nationals from the effects of such a crisis through proactive measures. One of the most pervasive effects of the recent economic and financial crises has been the rolling back of safety nets. I would like to recall that international human rights law requires States, even in times of hardship, to devote maximum efforts to mitigating the impact of crises on vulnerable groups, through all available means.  Several countries in Latin America have made great strides in combating poverty and income inequality during the global recession by implementing cash-transfer programmes that put money directly into the hands of those with lowest incomes. 

In this context, let me recall that in September 2009, the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was opened for signature. OHCHR was directly involved in supporting the process of the adoption of the Optional Protocol, and will continue to work towards the ratification of this important instrument.  We developed tools and training materials to enhance capacities to monitor implementation of economic, social and cultural rights.

Further, I wish to emphasize that the promotion and realization of the right to development remains a key dimension of our work. This year’s 25th anniversary of the Declaration on the Right to Development offers an opportunity to reflect on the way forward in implementing this crucial human right.

The logic of this right, as expressed in the Declaration itself, is unassailable: Everyone has the right to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development.  The Declaration requires putting the human person at the core of development and ensuring free, active and meaningful participation by all.  It holds that the benefits of development must be distributed fairly and without prejudice or discrimination.  

Over the course of the year, my Office will organize a series of events and activities designed to enhance understanding and dialogue on the right to development. 


Proximity to Victims

Many of the signposts of our success in implementing OHCHR’s priorities are to be found in the field where proximity to the victims and to duty bearers enhances the impact of our action.  Our 54 field presences build national capacity to respond to human rights challenges and some monitor and report abuses, as well as sound an early warning when patterns of violations become likely precursors of large-scale violence. 

Last year, we established two new country offices, in Guinea and Mauritania, while the mandates for our offices in Bolivia, Colombia and Nepal were extended. We also deployed new Human Rights Advisers to Honduras, Paraguay and Tajikistan.

In both Haiti and the Kyrgyz Republic we had a lead role in the protection clusters. In Haiti, our work focused on the protection of earthquake-affected populations, in particular the most vulnerable groups, and on providing support to national protection actors.

In response to the humanitarian crisis that was caused by a major outbreak of ethnically-motivated violence last June in southern Kyrgyzstan, OHCHR deployed a mission to Osh and Jalal-Abad.  Our action enabled affected persons to receive legal assistance, as well as support, through international human rights protection mechanisms. OHCHR ensured protection by its presence, and it became a trusted interlocutor for State authorities, civil society and the population at large.

At the same time, the OHCHR Rapid Response Section has continued to support and contribute to short-term missions, fact-finding missions and commissions of inquiry aimed at ensuring accountability and providing technical advice in the aftermath of crises as well as in the implementation of resolutions of the Council. 

On 26 January, I sent a delegation to Tunisia to assess human rights priorities in the country and define an OHCHR strategy of engagement for the protection and promotion of human rights. The people in Tunisia expressed legitimate human rights aspirations that should be addressed through adequate reforms, and they called for an OHCHR presence in the country to assist the transitional government in ensuring that such reforms take root. The State Secretary requested the opening of an OHCHR office in Tunisia. The mission’s report has been made public.

In Egypt the people’s call for freedom, dignity, economic prosperity and social justice must also be fully heeded.  I am pleased to announce that the government of Egypt has invited me to send an OHCHR assessment team to identify ways to enhance human rights protection.  I will be doing so.
My Office is also ready to support and service the commission of inquiry to Libya mandated by the Human Rights Council.  
I note that the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced yesterday that he was formally opening an investigation into crimes against humanity in Libya.
In Yemen, Algeria, Iraq, Iran, Bahrain, Oman, as well as in other countries, demands for significant change are also being made by protestors.  Human rights lie at the heart of these extraordinary developments and must be an integral part of reforms that will bring justice, equality and security for all.

With regard to the situation in Belarus, I previously expressed my deep concern about the violence against, and detention of, opposition candidates and their supporters, as well as harassment of human rights defenders and journalists in the aftermath of the 19 December presidential elections. Regretfully, many opposition supporters and human rights defenders are still in detention or under house arrest or have been sentenced for expressing dissent.

I also remain extremely concerned about the increasing violence and human rights abuses in Côte d’Ivoire. The flaring up of armed clashes in Abidjan and the west of the country puts civilians at grave risk. A humanitarian crisis is unfolding as people flee the fighting. I deplore violent attacks by Laurent Gbagbo’s supporters against the United Nations. All peacekeeping personnel—both civilians and blue helmet soldiers—enjoy protected status under international law. My report on the human rights situation in the country will be submitted to this Council in the course of the current session.


My own missions help reach out to rights-holders on the ground and bring advocacy to the highest levels of government.

In December, during my visit to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, I discussed the situation of human rights in the country with King Abdullah II.  He reassured me of his commitment to human rights reforms. I also delivered a speech at the University of Jordan on issues of freedom of religion and freedom of expression, and met with Government officials, representatives of the National Human Rights Center, civil society and youth groups. 

Last month, I visited Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory; the Russian Federation; and Brussels where I met government officials, civil society, the press, and regional organizations’ representatives.

In Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, I was received at the highest level, including by Israeli President Shimon Peres, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.  I raised the issue of human rights in the context of occupation.  I am deeply concerned that the politics of conflict, peace and security are constantly leading to the downgrading of, or failure to recognize the importance of binding international human rights and humanitarian law.  Accountability is not negotiable. No individual or State can be considered exempt, if they violate the law. The assessment and conclusions from my mission lead me to believe that my Office must continue to place priority on addressing the serious human rights concerns in this complex context. In this regard, I remain committed to strengthening my field presence there.

In my meetings with Russian Federation officials, including President Dmitry Medvedev, we discussed reforms meant to strengthen the rule of law -- especially the independence and effectiveness of the judiciary-- as well as the ability of the police and prison administrations to act fully in conformity with relevant international human rights standards.  Often, however, practical implementation lags behind the letter of the law and the intent of policies.  This disconnect reduces the level of protection afforded to ordinary citizens and, consequently, their trust in the key institutions of the State.  Another important area is the need for greater space for nongovernmental organizations, human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists to carry out human rights-related work without restrictions. 

In Brussels I discussed how important it is for the EU to ensure that policies and actions by its 27 members and associated countries fully reflect international human rights norms. I have also urged prompt and visible action by the EU on core thematic issues of major concern in many European countries. I refer for example—but not exclusively—to the treatment of migrants in Italy and France or in detention facilities in Greece, or to harsh return policies, such as the returns of Roma from Germany to Kosovo.  

Regarding the Roma people, changes in European Union legislation and policy last year are encouraging, but these initiatives found scant echo in the laws and practices of many EU members.  Discrimination and intolerance against the Roma persist. I urge States to use the full range of European legal and financial instruments to improve the enjoyment of all human rights by the Roma. 

One of the long-neglected challenges in Europe is the large number of children who are placed in institutional facilities only on grounds of poverty or disability, particularly in countries of Central and Eastern Europe. There, they often face poor quality care and, in several instances, utter neglect and malnutrition. I will follow with attention the investigation of numerous deaths of children in orphanages in Bulgaria, as well as cases of the reported denial of health care to children with disabilities in Romania.

Finally, I note human rights gaps in the media law in Hungary which are incompatible with the country’s treaty obligations. 


Human Rights Mechanisms

I will now turn to our support of human rights mechanisms.  We need to close the gap between rhetoric and good intent on the one hand, and measurable results on the other.  To this end, the Council should have at its disposal flexible and effective options and tools to respond to both chronic human rights situations and emergencies.   It must also seek ways to create synergies with treaty bodies and the Council’s Special Procedures, so that the overall impact of UN human rights institutions reflects a greater total than just the sum of its constituent elements.

Two new thematic mandates were established: one on the elimination of discrimination of women in law and practice, and the other on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. All opportunities should be used to draw on mandate holders’ expertise. I support proposals to enhance broader and more interactive discussions in this regard.

The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance came into force on 23 December 2010, which means that a 10th treaty body will be established in 2011. The establishment of new treaty bodies is welcomed. But this growth needs to be backed with sufficient financial resources.  The treaty body system is now almost double the size it was in 2004. Its output is used by a variety of stakeholders.   Regrettably, the growth of its funding resources has not kept apace.  In order to strengthen the system, I have requested all stakeholders to rethink its future, and I am pleased to inform you that the carefully nurtured process of discussion is going forward. In the coming year, I intend to publish a compilation of the recommendations received to strengthen the treaty body system. At the same time, we all need to acknowledge that, in and of themselves, streamlining and strengthening cannot displace the need to find and allocate additional resources to match the growth of the system.


Distinguished Members of the Human Rights Council,


Let me conclude by noting that we have strengthened our programme planning, monitoring and evaluation capacity, as well as our results-based management.

Indeed, producing concrete results should be our paramount goal. If our work is to be worthwhile, it must touch the lives of real people.  I look forward to our interactive dialogue and wish you a productive session.

Thank you.