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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Statement by Ms. Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to the 14th EU – NGO Forum on Human Rights

06 December 2012

“Promoting universality: the role of regional human rights mechanisms and their cooperation with civil society”

Brussels, 6 December 2012

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure and an honour for me to address you on the occasion of the EU-NGO Forum – an event which has already established itself as a “traditional” annual meeting bringing together delegates from NGOs, international organizations, EU Member States, European institutions and others.   The focus of this year’s Forum on promoting universality and the role of regional mechanisms is of particular importance.

It also comes in a changed context because earlier this year, the European Union (EU) adopted a comprehensive and ambitious “human rights package” which aims to mainstream human rights into all external policies of the EU.   It has also established the function of the EU Special Representative for Human Rights.   I met Stavros Lambrinidis a few weeks ago in New York, and I am delighted to share the podium here with him.

I would like to say right away that I very much appreciate the format of this meeting, which provides ample space for civil society stakeholders to interact with representatives of the EU as well as with the international human rights system, represented here not just by myself but also by a Special Procedures mandate holder and members of the UN Treaty Bodies.    In my view, it is essential that civil society organizations which are involved in all areas of human rights protection and promotion – from international ones to small grassroots organizations – are recognized as real partners by the duty-bearers and by intergovernmental organizations.

[Civil society as a reality check]
We must recognize that in developing human rights policies, there is always a risk of losing sight of the suffering of victims of human rights violations and becoming detached from the concrete work that needs to be done to achieve improvements.

High level statements, diplomatic engagements and well-thought policies such as the EU’s human rights package are vital instruments which demonstrate political will and can be used by civil society organizations in holding States to their word.   They are though insufficient unless they have an impact on the everyday lives of people.   To keep connected with the real struggles on the ground and to get feedback – often critical feedback – on the actual developments, we in the international human rights system need you. We rely on the work of civil society activists, who are independent from Governments.
At the international level, the credibility of the UN Treaty Bodies, Special Procedures, Universal Periodic Review and Human Rights Council is underpinned by the participation of civil society actors through their contributions of expertise, awareness-raising, monitoring and reporting, development of new standards and mobilization of public support.   At the local level, civil society organizations and actors have advantages in being able to reach specific groups, engage diverse stakeholders, and promote broad consultation on human rights issues that most affect their communities.

Working with civil society – be it in Headquarters or in the field – is a priority for OHCHR. It is through such partnerships that OHCHR is able to more effectively work towards the promotion and protection of human rights for all, throughout the world. 

[Working with civil society in the field]
OHCHR currently has 58 field presences, including regional offices country offices, human rights advisers embedded in UN country teams and human rights components of peace keeping missions.   Our field presences work closely with civil society actors, including at the grassroots level in countries where their members are under constant threat to their personal security. 

Indeed, for some human rights defenders and activists, our Office may represent the only tangible support they have in an otherwise hostile environment, and contacts with our Office may actually help protect them from persecution.   In many countries the EU delegations also play an important role in this respect.   This is very welcome – as is the fact that the EU has consistently identified the issue of human rights defenders as one of the priorities of its advocacy as well as of its funding through the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights.

A recent study on our field presences by Liam Mahoney and Roger Nash, entitled “Influence on the Ground”, which I have the pleasure to present to you here, illustrates how diverse our involvement with Governments and civil society may be.   It also contains concrete examples of how the Office has worked with national actors to generate real change, for instance the case of stopping extra-judicial executions in Colombia – a well-known breakthrough which would not have been possible without a close cooperation between my Office and civil society, each of whom fulfilled their respective roles in the process.

My Office also pursues human rights engagement in situations of protracted conflict in Europe, for example by supporting the UN engagement of the Senior Human Rights Expert in Transnistria, Thomas Hammarberg.    This is in line with my mandate under General Assembly resolution 48/141 to protect all human rights for all, including through seeking access to and working with de facto authorities to ensure that there be no human rights protection gaps in areas under their effective control.    

[Universalism and relativism]
Still, you might ask yourselves: “If the ways of engaging with States in diverse and complex realities are so varied, isn’t there a risk that those advocating for human rights are ultimately inconsistent in their activities in various parts of the world?”

Such a question is not only hypothetical. Indeed, it is being asked in various forms by many – by those who genuinely wish to improve the enjoyment of human rights in particular countries, but also by those States which wish to divert attention from their own human rights record to someone else’s.    Consequently, actors who are active in the promotion and protection of human rights are often confronted with the following question:    Are you consistent in your approach to human rights issues, or are you using “human rights” as an instrument which can be applied selectively, in line with political expediency?

The answer to this question is linked to the main topic of this conference – the universal character of human rights.    Methods may differ according to contexts but the aims must be the same because standards do not differ.   Whenever we deal with Governments, be it in a context of technical assistance or of public advocacy, we have clear guidance in this respect in the form of the international human rights standards.   That means not just the Covenants and Conventions themselves, of course, but also the emerging body of “soft law”: guidelines adopted by the UN General Assembly or the Human Rights Council, as well as the quasi-jurisprudence of the respective Treaty Monitoring Bodies and the findings of Special Procedures Mandate Holders appointed by the Human Rights Council.

These standards constitute a growing body of universal norms which have at times come under attack from adherents of alleged “regional” approaches, but those attempts have failed to undermine their universal appeal.   Indeed, the recent events in the Arab world have shown that citizens of States, which were often being described as having little or no interest in human rights have clearly demanded their rights – the same ones as people in other countries already enjoy. Further development in these countries will no doubt be complicated, beset by a number of challenges.   But it would be difficult to deny that many people in these societies made clear statements in favour of their full enjoyment of human rights.   They did not renounce, for instance, their right to freedom of expression or freedom of assembly, or their right to participate in political life by voting, by asserting that it was only a “Western” value.

It is evident to me that the way ahead, towards greater impact throughout the world, in the political gatherings as well as in the most remote villages, is for all stakeholders who are genuinely interested in improvement to refer to the same system of international human rights standards.   Follow-up to the recommendations from the UN Special Procedures, Treaty Bodies and the Universal Periodic Review can provide a solid basis also for development efforts.  Systematically addressing any gaps in terms of governance, rule of law and human rights may ultimately lead to more sustainable development.

It is very encouraging to see that in the EU “human rights package” as well as in the statements of its representatives, the EU is increasingly referring to international human rights law standards rather than to “European values”.   It is important because it can only strengthen the credibility of genuine engagement in favour of human rights worldwide.

If the EU and its Member States talk predominantly of “European values” in the context of human rights discourse, as they tended to do in the past, then they undermine universalism and promote relativism.   That is, of course, short-sighted, because it encourages other regional groups of States to identify with their declared values, too, rather than with universal, international standards.   Referring consistently to international human rights law can avoid or at least reduce the risk of the tendentious accusation of double standards.

It is for this reason that my Office has placed great importance on engaging with the newly established ASEAN human rights system, to help ensure that it develops into a system which complements the work of the international human rights system and plays a meaningful role in improving the human rights situation on the ground in South-East Asia.   

At the same time regional systems can play an enormously positive role – as seen here in Europe through the decades of hugely important work of the Council of Europe and its bodies, above all the European Court of Human Rights.   Also the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights is in this sense a welcome new addition to human rights protection within the EU territory.    Thus, the value of regional systems is in being complementary with the international one – they should not aim to replace international human rights standards by provisions which will fall short of what the international system guarantees.

My Office attaches high importance to a strengthened cooperation between regional and international human rights mechanisms.   This collaboration is key to protect human rights more effectively and to avoid duplication of efforts.   Important activities aimed at strengthening the collaboration between regional and United Nations human rights mechanisms have taken place in the recent years.   

  • In May 2010, OHCHR organized an international workshop on enhancing cooperation between UN and regional human rights mechanisms with the participation of regional mechanisms in Africa, the Americas, ASEAN and Europe.
  • Several joint activities have taken place, for instance a joint mission to Mexico by the special rapporteurs on freedom of expression of the UN and of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights in October 2011;
  • and a joint mission last September to Tunisia by the special rapporteurs on human rights defenders of the UN and of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

Next week, the second international workshop on enhancing cooperation will take place in Geneva.   Experts from UN mechanisms and from regional mechanisms around the world, including the Council of Europe, the EU Fundamental Rights Agency and the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, will meet to discuss how to enhance information sharing, joint activities and follow up to each other’s recommendations.

Regional systems of human rights protection can in some cases take the lead on issues where consensus on the international scene is difficult to reach.   An important example is that of the protection of LGBT persons from discrimination, which has become part of the EU primary law as well as of a subject of a specific non-discrimination Directive.

This can serve as inspiration for other regions.   As I said here in Brussels at an EU-Africa, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) event organized earlier this year, this is not – at least in my view – an issue of European vs. African or Asian values, as it is sometimes being represented.   In fact, many countries that today criminalize consensual same-sex relationships do so under laws imposed upon them in the 19th century by the European colonial powers.   Many European countries retained similar laws themselves until relatively recently, and just a few decades ago, discrimination against LGBT people was the norm in most European countries.

Prejudice against LGBT people still exists also in Europe today, and there are major differences in this respect between various European countries – but a lot of progress has been made in terms of legislation as well as awareness-raising.   Such progress is entirely possible in other parts of the world, too, as shown by increasing emergence of progressive legislation in Latin America, and indeed by legislative developments in South Africa and Nepal.   At the regional level, for instance, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has been closely following the situation of the rights of LGBT people, through precautionary measures, hearings, country visits and promotional activities.
On the international scene, we have had for the first time a Human Rights Council resolution identifying discrimination against LGBT persons as a serious human rights concern, and last December, at the Council’s request, my Office published the first official UN report documenting discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against LGBT people worldwide.   This is a dynamic situation of uneven progress between and within regions, not a clash of European vs. non-European values, and the role now being played in this respect by Europe is commendable.

[Internal – external consistency and selectiveness]
That being said, there are other areas where Europe has traditionally been less convincing, giving rise to accusations of selectiveness in the approach to human rights.   One of them is the sometimes selective approach to civil and political rights on the one hand, and economic, social and cultural rights on the other hand.   I welcome the fact that the approach of the European Union and a number of its Member States is becoming more universal.

However, no EU Member State has so far ratified the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.    Of course, ratification of this Convention would not immediately solve all the problems in the area of rights of migrants, but it would represent a significant step in this direction.    Needless to say, it would also dramatically strengthen the credibility of the EU on the international human rights scene, where its Member States are criticized by other States for having a selective approach to human rights.

Indeed, applying a “pick-and-choose” approach to international human rights treaties undermines universalism.   Therefore, I would like to encourage EU Member States to re-visit their approach to the Migrant Workers’ Convention and to ratify it, in the interest of migrants living in Europe but also in the interest of greater credibility of their (and the EU) external human rights policies.

Finally, please let me return to the role of civil society, which I addressed in the beginning of my speech.   In the next two years to come, I intend to pay particularly close attention to States’ relationships with, and treatment of, human rights defenders, journalists and other key members of civil society.   Human rights will not improve much without the direct participation of a robust, free and independent civil society – yet we are seeing increasing examples of State policies and actions that deliberately suppress, sideline or deter important civil society activities.   I encourage civil society to make full use of the international human rights mechanisms and contribute to the effective implementation of human rights everywhere.

It is the role of civil society to tell States if their human rights policies and practices are not consistent with international standards. It is their role to identify protection gaps when States are unable or unwilling to recognize them and to advocate for establishing new protection mechanisms at national, regional and international levels. And it is our collective responsibility to ensure that civil society actors can play their important role.

Let me end with an appeal to all of you: Let us all – and the duty-bearers first and foremost – work towards true universalism of human rights, based on international standards.   Let us move towards a situation where all human rights are regarded as important, whether they involve external or internal issues, and where civil society actors are recognized as essential stakeholders in securing durable and sustainable human rights protection at the national level.
         I would like to thank you for your attention, and wish you a successful and productive Forum.