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OPENING STATEMENT BY HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR HUMAN RIGHTS AT PRESS CONFERENCE IN GENEVA
18 October 2012

Following is the opening statement delivered by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay at a press conference at the Palais des Nations in Geneva today:

"Good afternoon.  As you may know, I began my second term last month. I thought this would be a good opportunity to reflect on the past four years since I became High Commissioner in September 2008, and also to look forward to what I hope can be achieved over the next two years before handing over the baton to my successor.

The UN human rights office will celebrate its 20th birthday next year, but still has a small share of the resources available to the United Nations. Some of our fellow UN agencies, funds and programmes are three times our age, have six times our staff, and 20 times our budget.

As we approach our 20th anniversary, the UN human rights system is at a pivotal moment in its history. Human rights are so wide-ranging and all-encompassing, and, sadly, still so commonly abused, that clearly we need to become bigger, better, faster, and stronger.

The good news is that we have indeed been gaining strength until now. At the end of 1997, the UN Human Rights Office had around 190 staff and a presence in only two countries. Now, we have 1,131 staff in 58 countries. Over the past four years alone, the number of independent experts, or expert bodies (‘Special Procedures’), appointed by the Human Rights Council has grown from 38 to 48 and the number of experts serving on Treaty Bodies from 139 to 172. My staff service all these bodies.

There has been important growth in other areas as well. In the past two years, I or my deputies have addressed the Security Council 12 times. This is a significant shift, given that the previous four High Commissioners in 15 years only had the opportunity to address the Security Council a total of nine times. The Security Council’s increased interest shows a growing recognition of the integral role human rights play in peace and security issues.

The UN human rights system is starting to register more strongly on the international stage in other ways: the Human Rights Council has been very much in the limelight with an increasingly broad and rich array of initiatives, venturing into new areas and dealing decisively with a number of country situations. Its Universal Periodic Review process successfully concluded its first round in March 2012, after an unprecedented examination of the human rights situation in all 193 UN Member States, everyone of which, without exception, actively participated in the process.

The second round is now under way, and I hope states will continue to cooperate in the realization that the UPR offers them an excellent vehicle for self-improvement as well as cross-fertilization of ideas and best practices, that should result in tangible changes for their populations. What the second cycle of the UPR reveals in terms of implementation of recommendations made during the first cycle will be very interesting indeed. Every state’s reputation is on the line, and the scrutiny will be intense.

Now for the bad news. Just as the world goes through a number of seismic shifts, with huge implications for human rights, including the events in North Africa and the Middle East, as well as the economic crisis that continues to ripple across the globe, the voluntary financial support for the UN human rights system is diminishing instead of growing. In the past two years we have spent more than we have received, and were it not for a cushion built up over previous years we would already be in the red. Faced with pessimistic funding projections, we are preparing to cut our current budget by 12 percent for 2013.

There are a number of reasons for this, of which the global financial crisis is of course paramount. We are making efforts to streamline processes that are under our own control, and to look at alternative sources of funding including the corporate and private sectors. This is an area I intend to explore aggressively over the next two years, to supplement our income and tap new areas of expertise. But the main source of funding will inevitably be, and should be, from Governments, all of which have a stake in the global human rights system.

We have tended to think small. And so have states. We have tended to celebrate when a G8 country raises its contribution from USD 2 million to USD 2.2 million, or when a country with a GDP of USD 800 billion comes on board as a new donor with USD 20,000. All voluntary donations are welcome, of course, but we need to focus more on the scale of the actual needs and opportunities.

Human rights is one of the three pillars of the UN system, the other two being development and peace and security. And yet the regular UN budget gives human rights only a tiny percentage of the resources provided to the other two pillars. Overall, the human rights pillar commands less than 3 percent of the regular UN budget, with an additional USD 110 million in voluntary donations from individual donor states, making a total this year of some USD 184 million. This relatively small sum of money is used not just to fund my office’s operations, but also to support the other three parts of the UN human rights system, namely the Human Rights Council, the nine Committees (‘Treaty Bodies’) and the 48 Special Procedures.

The Treaty Bodies in particular are chronically over-burdened and under-resourced. I urge states to reflect on the crucial role they play in helping states meet their human rights treaty obligations and to consider the different options for strengthening the machinery which we have proposed in a major report released in June.

Despite being the ultimate cross-cutting issue, covering a vast and complex array of subjects, and affecting the very core of governments’ and authorities’ relationships with their populations, human rights remains the poor relation of the international system. There is very little fat to cut, and I fear unless more donors, both governmental and private, come to the rescue, the damage to our operations could be considerable, and the much needed momentum gained over the past few years risks being halted in its tracks.

Evolving needs

We have managed to open new country offices in Tunisia and Yemen, insert human rights officers into the wider UN operation in Libya, and still hope to set up a regional office in Egypt. I currently have a list of 18 countries where it has been requested or suggested I add a human rights advisor to the UN country team, but I have not been able to afford to provide them.

During transition periods, the type of technical advice human rights teams can give on the redrafting of constitutions and key laws, guidelines and training programmes can be particularly invaluable. There are now significant opportunities opening up in Myanmar, and sizeable needs, which my staff are struggling to meet from our small regional office in Bangkok. I would also like to increase our presence in crisis-stricken countries like Mali.

It is no coincidence that the UN Human Rights Office is best known and often has the most impact in countries like Cambodia, Colombia, Nepal and Uganda where we have had relatively large operations. While I can – and often do – intervene from afar, nothing can match having well-qualified people on the ground, building close relationships with governments and civil society and stimulating concrete improvements.

The Middle East and North Africa region will continue to present major human rights challenges – and opportunities – for many years to come, and will undoubtedly remain a priority throughout my second term as High Commissioner.

In Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen, much work needs to be done to ensure that the human rights and aspirations of all the inhabitants are respected, without discrimination and in accordance with international standards. The situations in each of these four countries are very different from each other, and solutions will need to be carefully tailored to the rapidly changing circumstances. Libya in particular is extremely fragile after so many years of disastrous misrule by Moammar Qadhafi.

The human rights situation in Afghanistan will also require continued monitoring and support as the transfer of security responsibilities and withdrawal of foreign forces proceeds over the coming years.

Syria

The situation in Syria is quite simply dire. With no end in sight, and no solutions within easy grasp, we are in danger of becoming inured to the horrors that Syrian civilians are suffering day in and day out. But we cannot simply shrug and turn away. The indiscriminate use of heavy weaponry by government forces to destroy large swathes of cities such as Homs and Aleppo is inexcusable, as is the use of huge bombs by extremist opposition groups which kill and maim civilians as well as military targets. These acts, and many other violations committed by both sides, may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity.

I urge the Security Council to speak with one voice. That is essential in order to send a strong message. The longer this vicious conflict continues, the more lethal it becomes not just for Syria’s own long-term future, but also for the entire region. Already, the spill-over into Turkey is threatening regional peace and security. I fear for Syria’s children, many of whom will be scarred for life by the dreadful and prolonged traumatic experience they are suffering. No child should have to go through what these children are going through, least of all at the hands of their own government, their own army, or their own neighbours.

The memories of what happened in Bosnia and Herzegovina should be sufficiently fresh to warn us all of the danger of allowing Syria to descend into all-out sectarian conflict. Thousands and thousands of men, women and children have already been killed, injured, tortured, displaced. It should not take something as drastic as Srebrenica to shake the world into taking serious action to stop this type of conflict. By remaining divided, the international community is enabling the continuation of the suffering and helping create the circumstances for a wider regional conflict.

Neglected situations

Moving away from the Middle East, during the next two years I will try to shine more of a spotlight on some of the world’s neglected situations. To give just one example of these, I am very concerned about the human rights situation in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (otherwise known as North Korea or DPRK). The use of political prison camps, frequent public executions and severe food shortages, coupled with the extreme difficulty of gaining access, make DPRK singularly problematic.  The Government has not accepted my offer to provide technical assistance, including specific proposals to help review the country's Criminal Code and Criminal Procedures Code to help bring them in line with the authorities’ international obligations. Nor has it ever accepted a visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on the DPRK in the eight years since the post was created.

The human rights of people living in areas that are the subject of unresolved territorial disputes are also often neglected, with Jammu and Kashmir one such example. The discovery of 2,730 bodies in unmarked mass graves was confirmed in a 2011 report by the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission which stated that 574 of the bodies had been identified as disappeared local people.  The Commission said it believed there is “every probability” that the mass graves may also “contain the dead bodies of [persons subject to] enforced disappearances.” The report called for immediate DNA sampling and other forensic tests to see whether or not any of the bodies matched the next of kin of people who have disappeared, but I understand the State government has recently said it will not  proceed with the forensic identification of the unidentified bodies. I urge the Indian authorities to fully investigate past killings and disappearances and bring the perpetrators to justice, as well as to ensure protection of witnesses and families of the missing and provide them with redress. These will be critical steps in the ongoing effort to build confidence with the aim of promoting lasting peace and stability in the region.

Accountability

The issue of accountability is one that is in constant focus. Latin American countries continue to take new initiatives to deal with past crimes. In Argentina, for example, over 800 people have been brought to trial and 240 condemned for gross human rights violations committed during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship. In May this year, a Truth Commission was established in Brazil which is a very welcome development. My regional office is providing technical assistance and training to this new body, and I continue to urge the Brazilian Government to take the next important step and abrogate the 1979 amnesty law, so that anyone found guilty of very serious crimes during the dictatorship there can finally be brought to justice.

I also welcome the 5 October decision of the High Court in London to give three elderly Kenyans permission to seek redress for the grave abuses they suffered when imprisoned during the Mau Mau rebellion. Although still subject to appeal, the High Court’s ruling is in line with the positive trend we are seeing of more countries achieving accountability for grave human rights violations, even when decades have passed since the crimes were committed.

The economic crisis

The global economic crisis has led to an increasing number of States slashing budgets and adopting austerity programmes, not least in Europe. While governments may be compelled to take decisive action to improve their economic situation, they should take great care not to introduce measures that impact on the hard-won rights of their populations, and in particular those of the most vulnerable, including minorities, migrants and the poorest sectors of society who were already struggling to make ends meet.

Austerity measures must respect the principle of equality and scrupulously avoid discrimination. They should be accompanied by the simultaneous adoption of measures to mitigate the effect of the crisis on the most vulnerable. In particular, there must be safety nets in key sectors such as health and education. I am concerned that the already rancorous debate about migrants, refugees and minorities such as the Roma in some European countries, and elsewhere, may lead to further discrimination and marginalization as dominant groups look to secure their own futures and search for scapegoats.

In Greece, social tensions inflamed by the economic crisis have led to violent attacks on migrants, and allegations that anti-racism protestors suffered torture and ill-treatment at the hands of the police. In Spain, there have been allegations that the police responded excessively to the 25 September demonstrations, and I welcome the fact that an investigation has been launched into the police operation at the Atocha train station in Madrid.

Excessive force

The question of use of excessive force by the authorities is one which arises constantly in countries across the world.  I urge authorities everywhere to ensure that police, border patrols and other law enforcement and security personnel are trained in full accordance with international standards, both in crowd control and in other complex situations such as guarding international borders, where all too often individuals, including migrants, are killed, injured or treated inhumanely and illegally.

I was extremely shocked by the killing of 34 protesting miners at the Marikana platinum mine in South Africa on 16 August, which brought back memories of terrible events we all thought had ended along with apartheid. We will be paying close attention to the findings of the on-going judicial inquiry into exactly what happened at the mine. In addition to ensuring accountability for any unlawful killing, I believe it is essential that the Government of South Africa addresses the root causes of the social unrest at this and other mines in the country, including social and economic disparities. With more and more mines affected by strikes and protests, and continuing clashes between miners and the authorities, it is critical that the mine-workers grievances are looked at with as much concern as the interests of the mine owners.

Attacks on civil society and regional institutions

During my next two years in office, 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 deliberate suppress, sideline or deter important civil society activities. In recent months, we have even seen public smear campaigns against members of civil society because of their attendance at human rights meetings at the UN here in Geneva, as well as direct threats against some of them and their family members. This is completely unacceptable behaviour anywhere, let alone in the halls of the UN.

More serious still, attacks on human rights defenders, including killings, arrest, torture, and unfair trial, continue on a regular basis in many parts of the world.  The Secretary-General’s recent report on reprisals is an important development in the effort to expose and prevent such attacks, and will, I hope, help us hold Governments more accountable. 

Another group of key players in the global human rights movement are regional bodies. Ironically, at a time when human rights have risen so far up the international political agenda, these too are coming under pressure in some parts of the world. The oldest of them all, the Inter-American Commission, has been under attack in Latin America, and one state – Venezuela – has even said it will withdraw from the entire Inter-American human rights system. I urge Venezuela to reconsider this very damaging decision, and all Latin American states to rally round one of the world’s longest-standing and most respected human rights institutions.

I am also concerned about the decision at a Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit in August, to review the possibility of restricting the mandate of the SADC Tribunal, which may prevent it from continuing to hear cases, including those with a human rights dimension, brought by individuals against States. I believe that if the Tribunal’s scope is restricted in this way, it would mark a significant step backwards by SADC, as the Tribunal can – like other regional mechanisms of this type – play a very important role in providing an international remedy to individuals in cases where national processes have fallen short.

So these are some of the issues and challenges which I will focus on and prioritize during my second and final mandate as High Commissioner. I am honoured to be the first High Commissioner for Human Rights to be formally appointed for a second term by the General Assembly, and -- providing the necessary  means are made available -- hope to leave a stronger and more dynamic UN Human Rights system in two years’ time.  Thank you for your attention.”

To learn more about the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, please visit: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/AboutUs/Pages/HighCommissioner.aspx
For more information and media requests, please contact:
Rupert Colville: +41 79 506 1088 / rcolville@ohchr.org
Ravina Shamdasani:  +41 22 917 9310 / rshamdasani@ohchr.org

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For use of the information media; not an official record

HC12/073E