Funding gap looms amid efforts to tackle ‘twin plagues’ Ebola, ISIL, warns UN rights chief

High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein briefs journalists during a press conference in Geneva. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

16 October 2014 – Combating the “twin plagues” of Ebola and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), while addressing the largest number of forcibly displaced people since World War II amid budget cuts is like “being asked to use a boat and bucket to cope with a flood”, the United Nations’ new human rights chief told journalists in Geneva today.

In his first briefing to the press since taking up the four-year post on 1 September, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said he was “shocked” that just six weeks into his job, he already had to look at making cuts and “battle” to findThe twin plagues of Ebola and ISIL both fomented quietly, neglected by a world that knew they existed but misread their terrible potential resources.

“Our operations are stretched to breaking point in a world that seems to be lurching from crisis to ever more dangerous crisis,” he said, warning that when the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) “cannot afford to put people on the ground – to monitor, to report, to train, to advocate – the cost may be high.”

“The twin plagues of Ebola and ISIL both fomented quietly, neglected by a world that knew they existed but misread their terrible potential,” Mr. Zeid said.

“Human rights are not an airy ideal,” he stressed, adding that underestimating the critical importance of human rights is what plays in creating crises in the first place.

The global response to Ebola must therefore be focused on the right to health, to education, to sanitation, to development and to good governance. Only a response that is built on respect for human rights will be successful in crushing the epidemic.

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, Mr. Zeid said. It is wrong to dehumanise and stigmatise people.

OHCHR is currently drawing up guidelines on quarantine, because, if imposed and enforced injudiciously, quarantine can very easily violate a wide range of human rights.

Turning to what he called, “the antithesis of human rights”, Mr. Zeid said ISIL – or, as he referred to it, the Taqfiri group called “Daech” in Arabic – believes “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.

“The way [ISIL] has spread its tentacles into other countries, employing social media and the internet to brainwash and recruit people from across the globe, reveals it is to be the product of a perverse and lethal marriage of a new form of nihilism with the digital age,” said the High Commissioner.

As ISIL and Ebola gain ground, it is “deplorable” that the UN office responsible for human rights cannot fulfil the dozens of pending requests for human rights advisors and only receives around 3 per cent of the UN regular budget. The UN human rights office (OHCHR) is at least $25 million short of its needs this year, Mr. Zeid said.

“We are asking for less than the amount Americans are forecast to spend on costumes for their pets at Halloween in a few days, time – and that includes my family who live in New York,” the High Commissioner added.

Prior to 2013, it was unusual for there to be even two “mandated tasks” OHCHR was providing support to. But now, there are “no fewer than six of these under way”, including support missions for the Human Rights Council and an increasing number of fact-finding missions requested by the Security Council.

“In other words, the Office is stretched to its limit,” Mr. Zeid said, adding that some desk officers are obliged to cover seven or eight countries and to support multiple independent human rights experts and committees.

“We are already sparing back everything we can, and services are starting to suffer. States come to us asking for technical assistance programs, but is becoming increasingly likely that we will turn them down,” he said.

These include programmes to help vet security and police personnel and train them to respect human rights and refrain from torture.

The Office is, however, investigating alleged human rights violations and abuses in Iraq, Mr. Zeid said, reiterating his call to the Government to consider acceding to the Rome Statute to accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

We intend to issue another update count of reported deaths in Syria before the end of the year, he added. As it stands now, over 200,000 deaths have been reported since March 2011.

The High-Commissioner also expressed concern over continuing conflict in Yemen, Libya, and recently in Gaza, and said that his Office is engaged in "serious dialogue" about myriad human rights issues in Bahrain and Egypt.

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.

In Asia, he said that the “appalling and protracted” human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is on international radar thanks to the efforts of the International Commission of Inquiry, established by his predecessor Ms. Navi Pillay.

He also spotlighted the perils faced by migrants in the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and the Americas, many of whom continue to die in their desperate efforts to find a better, more dignified life.

Meanwhile, there is an alarming increase in the number of major political parties in European and other industrialised countries proposing, and on occasion implementing, regressive and even abusive migration and xenophobic policies.

Mr. Zeid concluded his first press conference on a positive note however, saying: “Notwithstanding everything I have just said…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”.

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