9 December 2011
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by High Commissioner in Connection with Human Rights Day

 


Recent events in Tunis, Cairo, Madrid, New York and hundreds of other cities and towns across the globe demonstrated that “the voice of ordinary people has been raised and their demands made clear”, Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said at Headquarters today.


At a press conference to mark the commemoration of Human Rights Day, Ms. Pillay said the protest movements proved that people wanted “human beings at the centre of our economic and political systems, a chance for meaningful participation in public affairs, a dignified life and freedom from fear and want”.


She said awareness of human rights at an individual level was growing and social media were playing a significant role in mobilizing people around the world.  “Social media’s ability to spread the message is a powerful new tool in the never-ending effort to ensure that more and more people know, demand and defend their human rights,” she stressed.  In light of “all those old certainties that economic growth justifies despite the human life and misery, it is a seismic shift and a cause for celebration,” she added.  The protests against dictatorships also demonstrated that the business-as-usual tactics implemented by many Governments were no longer satisfactory and sufficient for a truly stable environment.


Recalling her participation earlier today in the first ever live social media global conversation on human rights, she said it had been based on the idea that although much time was spent focusing on human rights violations, there was much to celebrate in terms of what had been achieved.  The response to the social media human rights campaign had been “tremendous”, she said, noting that in the last 48 hours, millions of people had engaged on Twitter and Facebook, with hundreds of questions pouring in from around the world.


The protest movements erupting around the world proved that economic, social and political rights as well as the right to development mattered to people everywhere, she continued.  The anti-dictatorship protests that had marked the “Arab Spring” had also demonstrated that the previous narrow measure of stability — economic growth, foreign investment and national security — were insufficient for a truly stable and sustainable society, she said, adding that human rights must also be a part of the equation.


Prior to the protests that had broken out in Tunis almost a year ago, the country was said to have been on a positive growth track and on its way to realizing the Millennium Development Goals, she noted.  Tunisia had been one of the most equitable societies in the Middle East and its development model had served the country well.  At the same time, however, United Nations and human rights organizations had been painting a picture of excluded and marginalized communities and of economic and social rights denied.  There had been inequality, discrimination, an absence of labour rights, political repression and denial of free speech.  “Yet somehow this side of the equation carried very little sway in our development analysis,” she said.  “All those old certainties about economic and strategic ends justifying human rights denial have been shaken to the core during this tumultuous year.”


In response to questions about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s recent statements denying that he was killing his own people and that the United Nations was not a credible institution, she said the recent human rights inquiry had talked to more than 220 witnesses and although observers were not allowed into Syria, they had travelled to neighbouring countries and stayed in touch with Syrians who had fled their homeland.


Asked whether President Assad had disassociated himself from the killings or was possibly losing control of the army, she acknowledged that security forces had also been killed, and warned that the situation in Syria could very well develop into a full-fledged civil war.  Gaining access to the country in order to better assess what was going on was a priority, she emphasized, noting that communities were under siege and people did not dare to step outside their homes for fear of being shot.


She said more than 4,000 people had been killed, and it was up to the Security Council, not her, to decide what action should be taken.  There were first-hand eyewitness accounts and a great deal of information received via Skype and from people who had been inside the country.  It was not good enough for the President to brush aside the assertions and say that the United Nations was not a credible enough source, she said.


Asked whether she was expected to meet with the Security Council, she said she expected to share her findings with United Nations bodies, and there was certainly a possibility of bringing the information gathered to the Council.


When asked about her position, as an African, on the crackdown on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community by some countries on the continent, she condemned the “huge” levels of stigmatization and discrimination, emphasizing that sexual preference was constitutionally protected as was the case in her own South Africa, and it was important to ensure that justice was served if there were violations.  The Human Rights Council was working to promote the decriminalization of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, she added.


Asked whether Arab women were concerned that their rights would regress following the Arab Spring, she said both women and men were on the streets and in Cairo’s Tahrir Square demanding rights, and she did not believe the rights that women had demanded would be rolled back.


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For information media • not an official record