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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Press Conference by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein

Zeid Press Conference

16 October 2014

16 October 2014

Good morning

It is a pleasure to meet you, six weeks after taking up this post. I feel extremely honoured to have been appointed High Commissioner for Human Rights – a position that has been gaining in strength through the tenure of each and every one of my predecessors.

Together with my staff, we have a mandate to “protect and promote” human rights for everyone everywhere. That is a truly daunting responsibility, especially when – by comparison with the needs – our capacity to deliver is paper thin.

I have to say I am shocked.

Shocked that just six weeks into this job, I am already having to look at making cuts, because of our current financial situation. This comes at a time when our operations are stretched to breaking point in a world that seems to be lurching from crisis to ever more dangerous crisis.

Human rights are currently under greater pressure than they have been in a long while. Our front pages and TV and computer screens are filled with a constant stream of Presidents and ministers talking of conflict and human rights violations, and the global unease about the proliferating crises is palpable. The UN human rights system is asked to intervene in those crises, to investigate allegations of abuses, to press for accountability and to teach and encourage, so as to prevent further violations. Time and time again we have been instructed to do these and other major extra activities “within existing resources” – which is like being asked to use a boat and a bucket to cope with a flood.

Human rights is recognized as one of the three pillars of the UN system, the others being development and peace and security. There has also been the clear recognition, in the Human Rights Up Front initiative, that without good governance, rule of law and human rights protection, peace and development efforts can be seriously compromised. For 2014 and 2015, OHCHR was allocated only about US$ 87 million per year – a small fraction of the regular budget allocations to the peace and security and development pillars. The Swiss population, including all us foreigners living here who love Swiss chocolate, paid over 10 times this amount on chocolate last year.

My Office currently receives around 3 percent of the UN regular budget. This covers about a third of its total expenditures. A number of States are discussing raising our regular budget allocation to an initial 5 percent over the next few years. I heartily endorse this proposal and urge its adoption as soon as possible.

In the meantime, most of our funding depends on voluntary contributions, to cover almost all of our field activities around the world as well as essential support work at headquarters, and even some core mandated tasks, as well as substantial hidden costs arising from others. However, the current level of voluntary contributions is insufficient to cover this level of activity.

By “mandated tasks” I mean our support for the ever more active Human Rights Council, for which we act as Secretariat; our support for the growing number of Special Procedures mandate-holders and to the human rights Treaty Bodies; and our support for the increasing number of commissions of inquiry and fact-finding missions requested by the Security Council or by the Human Rights Council. There are currently no fewer than six of these under way, with a seventh possibly just around the corner. Prior to 2013, it was unusual for there to be even two of these running concurrently.

Please don’t get me wrong. We welcome these tasks, which are a reflection of the increasing priority being placed on human rights by governments, and their growing willingness to confront violations, to order invaluable in-depth examinations of major human rights crises and to prevent their recurrence. But year after year we have to battle to find the resources to fulfil all these tasks, and more and more often we are having to decline requests to undertake additional activities and to establish new presences to support Governments in their efforts to improve their records. Despite strong backing from many donors, the level of contributions is not keeping pace with the constantly expanding demands on my Office.

The extent of OHCHR’s fund-raising difficulties has grown ever more stark over the past few weeks. To put it bluntly, we are going to be at least US$ 25 million short of our needs for this year.

Resolving this extraordinary disconnect between what we are asked to do and what we are given to do it with, is a top priority. The Office has to be put on a more stable footing if it is to do justice to its extensive and visionary mandate. It seems that we can no longer rely on Governments to match all our needs, let alone fund some of the extra activities we ought to be undertaking if we are to take that mandate seriously. So we will have to push forward the discussion about how to draw on additional sources of funding.

OHCHR has developed a results-based management system to streamline and focus our work. But at present the Office is as lean and tightly run as any organization I have seen. The staff works with impressive dedication and skill, despite extreme hardship conditions in many field operations.

The Office is stretched to its limit, with some desk officers obliged to cover seven or eight countries or to support multiple independent human rights experts and committees; a sprawling, impenetrable web-site that needs a complete overhaul; and not one single staff member focusing full-time on an issue as stark and vital to human rights as climate change – with its multiple implications for displacement, statelessness, land-rights, resources, security and development.

We are already paring back everything we can, and services are starting to suffer. States come to us asking for technical assistance programs, but it is becoming increasingly likely that we will have to turn them down. These include programs to help vet security and police personnel and train them to respect human rights and refrain from torture. We also risk having to turn down some requests for assistance with legal reforms to rewrite unjust and discriminatory laws.

We have asked to open country offices in Honduras and Burundi, and I am far from certain that we will be able to do so. Some states have asked us to retain presences that we may instead have to close down for lack of sufficient resources. And we have dozens of pending requests for human rights advisors to be deployed to UN field presences. This is a deplorable situation. There should be UN human rights offices everywhere they are needed, and certainly everywhere they are wanted.

My predecessor, Navi Pillay, publicly flagged the funding problems back in 2011, but I think that many people at the UN, myself included, failed to grasp the scale of the issue because she and the staff were doing such a remarkable job, despite their threadbare resources. This is not sustainable.

I could list the several-billion-dollar budgets of other UN entities. But I don’t wish to imply that I want to divert funds from them, because humanitarian agencies in particular need every cent they can get, especially when we are now seeing the largest number of forcibly displaced people since World War II. Refugee and migratory movements are predominantly the product of human rights violations, including those that occur during conflicts, as well as persecution, poverty, failure to protect and fulfil social and economic rights, and discrimination. Migratory movements are also often fuelled by a failure to respect the right to development, which encompasses social, economic and civil and political rights.

Again, to put it into a perspective everyone can relate to – without trying to trivialize the following expenditures – a single new highway bridge often costs as much or more than our overall annual budget of around US$ 250 million. We are asking for less than the amount Americans were forecast to spend on costumes for their pets at Halloween – and that includes my family who live in New York. And during the 12 months ending 30 June 2014, the amount spent on iPhones would fund the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for 391 years. Or put another way, our entire annual budget was the equivalent of one day of iPhone sales during that period.

We are not asking very much. And some Governments – in fact most Governments – of countries with huge economies are devoting very little to the international human rights system, despite talking loudly and proudly about human rights in their foreign policy.

Any number of business tycoons could pay off our missing 25 million without blinking – and I would be very grateful if one did. But, frankly they shouldn’t have to. States created the office of the High Commissioner. They created the international human rights system and they should ensure we have the necessary resources to support it.

When the UN Human Rights Office cannot afford to put people on the ground – to monitor, to report, to train, to advocate – the cost may be high. Much of our work is about contributing to prevention. Prevention of violations, prevention of conflict, prevention of the spread of disease too – something I will come to shortly. When human rights go wrong, the price the people of the world pay in bloodshed, in wrecked economies and paying for humanitarian aid is simply titanic – in the tens if not hundreds of billions. Even one mid-sized crisis averted through good human rights groundwork would pay back the modest UN human rights budgets for decades to come.

I will now turn to two monumental crises which will inevitably cost us all many billions to overcome. The twin plagues of Ebola and ISIL both fomented quietly, neglected by a world that knew they existed but misread their terrible potential, before exploding into the global consciousness during the latter months of 2014.

The ability of Ebola to lay waste to human lives on an immense scale is now being realized. Its potential to devastate the human rights of those who survive, of entire countries and regions, is barely being considered. Underestimating the critical importance of human rights – in particular the right to health, to education, to sanitation, to development and to good governance – played in creating this crisis in the first place has barely been discussed.

Human rights are not an airy ideal. They address epidemics and similar threats to life very directly. Human rights can prevent disease, and they can also help cure disease. It is vital that human rights be integrated into the response to this appalling tragedy, because only a response that is built on respect for human rights will be successful in quashing the epidemic.

Ebola thrives at the intersection of chronic poverty, failure to deliver adequate public services, and failures of public trust in the authorities. It should be obvious that any response must address those points. We must also beware of "us" and "them", a mentality that locks people into rigid identity groups and reduces all Africans – or all West Africans, or some smaller, national or local group – to a stereotype. As the international community accelerates its medical assistance, it is also vital that every person struck down with Ebola be treated with dignity, not stigmatized or cast out. Not only is it wrong to dehumanise and stigmatise people; this kind of discourse also drives people who need treatment into hiding, which reduces their chances of recovery and exposes others to risk.

My Office is also drawing up guidelines on quarantine, because, if imposed and enforced injudiciously, quarantine can very easily not only violate a wide range of human rights, but in so doing accelerate the spread of diseases like Ebola. I also want to point out that the introduction of criminal penalties into public health responses is very likely to backfire, by driving the epidemic underground. And placing people who may have the disease in overcrowded prisons will obviously simply compound the catastrophe.

Now to turn to the world’s other most active and destructive agent: ISIL.

ISIL is the antithesis of human rights. It kills, it tortures, it rapes, its idea of justice is to commit murder. It spares no one – not women, not children, nor the elderly, the sick or the wounded. No religion is safe, no ethnic group. It is a diabolical, potentially genocidal movement, and the way it has spread its tentacles into other countries, employing social media and the internet to brainwash and recruit people from across the globe, reveals it to be the product of a perverse and lethal marriage of a new form of nihilism with the digital age.

But ISIL, like Ebola, did not arrive out of the blue. ISIL was able to spread insidiously and then, once it had gathered enough momentum, to storm across borders from Iraq into Syria and from Syria back into Iraq, and from its cameras and computers via YouTube into our homes.

A mission is under way, as requested by the Human Rights Council in its special session on Iraq, to investigate alleged human rights violations and abuses that have been, and are being, committed in the country. And I repeat my call to the Government of Iraq to consider acceding to the Rome Statute, and, as an immediate step, to accept the exercise of the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction with respect to the current situation.

As well as working with UNAMI to produce regular updates on the terrible situation in northern Iraq, we intend to issue another updated count of reported deaths in Syria before the end of the year. We do not yet know the precise grim tally that statistical analysis will reveal, but I can tell you it will be well over 200,000 reported deaths since the killing of the first innocent protestors by Syrian Government forces in March 2011.

Sadly, Ebola, Syria and Iraq are not the only explosive tragedies affecting the world. Just in the region I come from, there is continuing conflict in Yemen, Libya and recently in Gaza. We are also engaged in serious dialogue about human rights issues in Bahrain and Egypt, as part of our efforts to grapple with long-standing human rights deficits and serious violations in several countries in the region, including the entire occupied Palestinian territory.

In Europe, there is Ukraine, where – as our report last week showed – people continue to be killed despite a tenuous cease-fire.

In Africa, conflicts and violations, including sexual violence, continue in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria and Mali, worsening the already chronic poverty, lack of food security and arrested development. In Asia, the appalling and protracted human rights situation in the DPRK is finally on the international radar thanks to the efforts of the International Commission of Inquiry, and of Navi Pillay who urged the Human Rights Council to set up that Inquiry. We note the recent stated willingness of DPRK to accept for the first time technical assistance in relation to the Human Rights Council.

The migrants of the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean and the Americas – fleeing poverty and hopelessness, conflict and persecution, as well as organised crime and insecurity, continue to die in their desperate efforts to find a better, more dignified life. Or, if they make it, they risk experiencing exploitation, and increasing racism and xenophobia in their destination countries. In parallel, there is an alarming increase in the number of major political parties in European and other industrialized countries proposing, and on occasion implementing, regressive and even abusive migration policies, often forming coalitions with smaller xenophobic parties or co-opting their policies. The voices that protest such policies are increasingly drowned out.

I have painted a bleak picture of the world of human rights facing the new High Commissioner. But it is far from bleak in every respect.

While no country is perfect, I believe – notwithstanding everything I have just said – that human rights are now being widely upheld in more countries than ever before. It seems to me that the broad trajectory of humanity is a positive one, and that in an increasing number of communities and countries, all human beings are seen as fully equal in dignity, and their rights are largely observed. Within families and within nations, despite all the violations and conflicts I listed earlier, violence and discrimination have broadly speaking decreased in the past few decades, and continue to do so.

Credit for that should go to all those countless brave and committed men and women – civil society activists, journalists, lawyers, state employees and politicians – who over the decades have eventually succeeded in firmly rooting international human rights norms in their societies. It is our job, in the UN Human Rights Office, to help them as best we can.

And that is perhaps the biggest privilege that I will experience as High Commissioner. Because what these people have achieved over the past couple of centuries, and what they will continue to achieve in this one, is one of the most remarkable things in the history of mankind. That is something the likes of ISIL will never understand, and for that reason humanity will eventually prevail.