New UN rights chief stresses need to tackle discrimination, prevent genocide

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay

8 September 2008 – The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights today stressed the need to address discrimination and inequality, and to do more to prevent genocide, in her first major speech since taking up her new post.

“Genocide is the ultimate form of discrimination,” Navanethem Pillay told delegates at the opening of the ninth session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. “We must all do everything in our power to prevent it.”

Ms. Pillay spent eight years as a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and five on the International Criminal Court in The Hague before taking up her post as the UN’s top human rights official on 1 September.

Drawing on her experience dealing with war crimes and crimes against humanity, the High Commissioner called for a stronger focus on preventing genocide, as well as the “cycles of violence, the mobilization of fear and the political exploitation of difference – ethnic, racial and religious difference” that lead to it.

She noted that 2008 contains a number of important human rights milestones – including the 60th anniversaries of the Genocide Convention on 9 December, and of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December.

At the same time, she pointed out that both the Universal Declaration and the Genocide Convention “grew out of the Holocaust, but we have yet to learn the lesson of the Holocaust, as genocide continues.”

Ms. Pillay, who herself experienced discrimination while living in apartheid South Africa, added that development, security, peace and justice are all undermined “when discrimination and inequality – both in blatant and subtle ways – are allowed to fester and to poison harmonious coexistence.”

She urged States not to let “diverging points of view” deter them from taking part in next year’s review of the 2001 global conference against racism, known as the “Durban Review Conference,” the process leading to which has been heavily criticized.

“I do not believe that ‘all or nothing’ is the right approach to affirm one’s principles or to win an argument,” she said. “The process will certainly benefit from active participation by all States… Should differences be allowed to become pretexts for inaction, the hopes and aspirations of the many victims of intolerance would be dashed perhaps irreparably.”

She said that former South African President Nelson Mandela had taught her that “far from being appeasement, coming to terms with other people’s experiences and points of view may serve the interest of justice better than strategies that leave no room for negotiation.”

In her speech, Ms. Pillay also emphasized that gender discrimination remains a major concern. “Such discrimination makes the Universal Declaration’s promise an empty pledge for millions of women and girls,” she said. “No effort should be spared to persuade countries to repeal laws and practices that continue to reduce women and girls to second-class citizens despite international standards and despite the specific commitments that have been made to throw out these laws and customs.”

She pledged to carry out her role as High Commissioner in an impartial fashion, without favouring one set of rights over another. “The credibility of human rights work depends on its commitment to truth,” she said, “with no tolerance for double standards or selective application.”

Over the course of the next three weeks, the Council is expected to consider human rights situations that require its attention, including follow-up to its special sessions on Darfur, Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza, and the global food crisis.

The Council’s President, Martin Ihoeghian Uhomoibhi, told delegates how important it is to conduct the body’s work in a spirit of candor, transparency and mutual respect for the viewpoints of others.

“We cannot afford to do otherwise, given the importance and sensitivity we all attach to human rights issues…While we must continue to insist that all human rights issues be given an open and fair hearing, we must also recognize that our work in the Council is primarily to promote and protect human rights for all people; to improve the human rights situation of victims, and not merely to condemn and to name and shame,” he stated.


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