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Address by Ms. Navanethem Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
"Human Rights Challenges and Opportunities in the Contemporary World"
Wilton Park, 22 January 2009

Programme Director Jacques,
Secretary-General of Amnesty International Khan (Dear Irene),
Distinguished Participants,

I wish to thank the organizers for inviting me to Wilton Park today. Our gathering allows us to take both the pulse of the ongoing work on human rights, as well as to identify emerging key issues and trends. This discussion, I am sure, should allow us to think creatively in advance of the review of the Human Rights Council in 2011. Indeed, now is the time for all of us to begin polling ideas so that the 2011 review will proceed constructively.

We have entered a period in which human rights standards have been further refined. The ways to monitor their implementation have been enhanced, and their application is pursued more widely. At the same time, there is no doubt that we need to work harder and with renewed determination to ensure full compliance with human rights law. In sum, I believe that implementation of human rights norms should be at the forefront of our common activities and objectives both now and in the future.

With this in mind, I shall highlight some of the main challenges we face, be they rooted in chronic human rights violations, or be they new threats.

Without doubt, poverty, impunity, armed conflict and authoritarian rule continue to undermine the wellbeing and human rights of countless victims. Climate change, scarcity of food, and the global economic crisis pose direct threats to a wide range of universally-recognized human rights, including the right to food, to education and health, to an adequate standard of living, and to the right to life itself. All measures should be taken to ensure that these factors do not disproportionally affect the most vulnerable.

We should do more and work faster to meet the Millennium Development Goals. In the Millennium Declaration and the 2005 World Summit, world leaders explicitly recognized the close linkages between development, human rights and peace and security. They should now act with this understanding.

Modern day terrorism represents a towering threat and a profound challenge to human rights. In countering it, however, States must ensure that they act within the framework of their human rights obligations. I am pleased that President Obama intends to resolve the untenable situation of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and uphold the Geneva Conventions. Equally crucial is his recognition that respect for human rights makes the world a safer place.

Migration is another major human rights challenge. Policies should be based on human rights principles and draw upon the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. I strongly encourage all UN Member States to ratify this important instrument.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Discrimination, a human rights violation in itself, is also all too often at the root of other human rights abuses. Combating discrimination in all its aspects represents a priority for my Office. Allow me to expand on two of its particularly invidious forms, namely gender and racial discrimination.

Despite international standards, there are many countries in the world that still systematically discriminate against women. Discrimination ignites violence against women which, as the UN has noted, reaches the proportions of a pandemic. It also condones impunity. In my judicial capacity, I established that rape could amount to an element in the crime of genocide. Although at its most brutal in times of war, violence against women often stems from stereotypes, prejudices, and the lack of equality that had condoned such violence all along. When perpetrators go unpunished, they are emboldened to strike again. Others are encouraged to follow their example. Rendering justice to the victims is, therefore, not only a moral imperative, but also a legal obligation without which communal welfare is compromised.

My Office will focus on safeguarding against sexual violence in situations of conflict and on the promotion of all women’s human rights, including their economic, social and cultural rights which are also a means of securing women’s participation in all aspects of governance. We must act upon the recognition that gender equality, the empowerment of women, and respect for their human rights are indispensible to development and security for all.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In April, an international review conference will meet in Geneva to evaluate the implementation of commitments governments made eight years ago in Durban to eradicate intolerance, racial hatred and discrimination. These are problems which affect all countries. I therefore urge governments, and all other stakeholders to actively participate in this review process.

I am fully aware that the legacy of the 2001 Durban Conference has been tainted by the anti-Semitic behaviour of some NGOs at the sidelines of that conference. And now the review conference has also been the target of a disparaging media and lobbying campaign on the part of those who fear a repetition of anti-Semitic outbursts. This is unwarranted.

As Secretary-General of the Conference, I have reacted to counter such distortions in order to set the record straight. I have taken and will continue to seek all possible opportunities to emphasize the fact that the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, the document that emerged from the conference in 2001, transcended divisive and intolerant approaches. I also forcefully underscore that the DDPA offers the most comprehensive framework and platform to combat intolerance and racism in their many forms anywhere and everywhere.

In addition to my personal engagement and outreach efforts, my Office has made it a priority to ensure a successful outcome of the review conference. Despite our limited resources, we have undertaken and will continue to engage in various supportive activities.

For example, we have recently launched a dedicated website to keep all stakeholders updated on the ongoing preparations. This initiative complements the regular bulletins that we issue to keep Member States, as well as the general public, abreast of relevant developments. Furthermore, OHCHR has provided support to the mechanisms of the preparatory process.

Responding to a request from the preparatory committee of the conference, I am in the process of finalizing my own contribution to the review process. The document will list the activities that my Office has undertaken since 2001 to help States implement both the relevant provisions of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action as well as the pertinent resolutions of the Human Rights Council and the Commission on Human Rights, its predecessor body. I also plan to present concrete proposals concerning implementation. Moreover, I will outline suggestions for strengthening and facilitating the work of my Office in the fight against racism and racial discrimination.

I am also committed to ensuring the most efficient engagement of civil society in the Durban review process, together with the broadest, constructive participation of all stakeholders.

It cannot be overemphasized that it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms and eradicate inequality and discrimination.

In its most extreme forms and when allowed to fester unchallenged, discrimination may lead to genocide. As we commemorated the 60th anniversary of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide last December, I stressed the need to devise strategies that can be developed and adopted to enhance the implementation of this Convention. To this end, and responding to a request by the Human Rights Council, my Office held a seminar on preventing genocide yesterday. We will publish a paper on the seminar’s outcome.

I also wish to point out that it is incumbent upon all States to promote tolerance and foster understanding of diversity, so that all views and convictions can be freely and respectfully expressed in the public arena. Expressions conveying incitement to racial or religious hatred should be acted upon in an urgent but proportionate manner. The freedoms of religion and expression must always be protected by creating a respectful environment conducive to frankness and debate, as well as the accommodation of diversity.

Distinguished Participants,

When the General Assembly replaced the Commission on Human Rights with the Human Rights Council, it also decided that the working methods of the Council would be reviewed in 2011. At that time, the status of the Council, which is currently under the General Assembly’s purview, may also be reviewed in order to evaluate whether or not to make it a principal, stand-alone body under the UN Charter.

It is my conviction that we need not reinvent the wheel and employ scarce resources, as well as time consuming efforts, in rebuilding the Council from scratch. Its current status and operational framework enable the Council to be both far-reaching in its interventions, as well as methodologically well-equipped to discharge its mandate.

Consequently, I encourage all concerned to focus rather on the need to provide a thorough and dispassionate assessment aimed at enhancing the Council’s ability to promote and protect all human rights. In parallel, we should also examine how to rectify any shortcoming in the Council’s practices.

On this latter point, the Council may wish to consider to what extent it can bolster its ability to deal with urgent—an often competing—human rights issues both in their thematic and country-specific manifestations. The Council has been quite responsive to emergencies. In my view, it should also and more consistently direct its attention to alleviating chronic human rights conditions.

To this effect, and in addition to its special sessions, the Council could hold special briefings on matters of concern, as well as creatively reach out to the press and the “outside world” through declarations, presidential statements or press releases concerning the full spectrum of its activities. This additional effort may help ensure that human rights debates and advocacy are made more vivid for, and more accessible and meaningful to, the public at large.

I would welcome a more robust inclusion of independent expertise when the Universal Periodic Review mechanism is re-evaluated. That inclusion would strengthen the reviewing process. It could be brought to fruition both prior to, and during the consideration of reports submitted by States. Moreover, the implementation phase of UPR recommendations could greatly benefit from the technical knowledge of independent experts.

The Universal Periodic Review process has already developed synergies with the independent expertise of Special Procedures. It enhanced the visibility of these experts. As a result, many States under review invited Special Procedures mandate holders to visit their countries. In a virtuous cycle, for their part, these experts have shown the value added of their independent assessments to the review process.

By way of example, I wish to point out that a comparison between the first and second session of the UPR shows that more States addressed issues of concern to Special Procedures during the interactive dialogue. These issues also figured in the recommendations of the Working Group--that is, Member States of the Council undertaking the review--more often. Of the 107 issues identified by Special Procedures for the 16 States under review, more than two thirds (or 74 issues) were raised during the interactive dialogues of the Working Group, and well over half (or 64 issues) were translated into recommendations. In addition, the second session saw an increase in the number of specific references to the Special Procedures system and to particular mandates. States under review were urged to adhere to the various Special Procedures’ recommendations in the Working Group reports.

The UPR has also elevated the profile of treaty bodies. These bodies’ recommendations, along with those of the Special Procedures, are an integral part of the report compiled by OHCHR for the UPR process—this is one of the three reports on which the review is based. In turn, the UPR process can also prove to be a catalyst for increasing ratification of human rights treaties, and for the acceptance of optional monitoring procedures. The UPR process already appears to have prompted some States to accept treaties and their procedures, submit reports, as well as to prioritize implementation of treaty bodies’ recommendations.

Vigilance should be exercised in order to ensure that the recommendations and jurisprudence of treaty bodies, as well as the vital contributions of Special Procedures, are always and consistently made part and parcel of the UPR process, including its follow-up and the implementation of its outcome.

Let me conclude this part of my discussion by noting that one of the key benchmarks in judging the Council’s performance and impact will be whether this body has been able and willing to effectively weave into its deliberations the views and contributions of other stakeholders, such as national human rights institutions, and civil society. Regarding national institutions, I wish to point out that their protection role is not yet fully understood and developed. Such institutions need to become the first port of call for victims everywhere. The involvement of both national human rights institutions and civil society is crucial in ensuring follow-up, implementation and monitoring at the national level, as well as the congruence of domestic law and practices with international norms.

For our part, I am fully aware that the credibility of my Office, and the United Nations as a whole, depends on being close to victims and helping them directly where they are exposed to violations. This requires our independence of judgment, responsiveness from headquarters, and—crucially--service on the ground. As you know, we maintain presences in many countries. In particular, the mandate of our country offices largely consists in monitoring and reporting on human rights violations, and in providing technical cooperation to prompt promotion and protection of human rights. Our public reports serve as key diagnostic tools, which inform our cooperation and technical assistance to governments and other partners.

In sum, our work in the field, jointly with our efforts at headquarters, is devoted to identifying how to foster progress and close protection gaps. We intend to continue along this track with the same collaborative and forward-looking approach that has brought us together at Wilton Park.

Thank you.