Sixty Years after Human Rights Declaration Adopted Challenge Remains Same — Bringing Vision Closer to Ground, so It Touches ‘Lives of Real People’, Third Committee Told
Sixty Years after Human Rights Declaration Adopted Challenge Remains Same — Bringing Vision Closer to Ground, so It Touches ‘Lives of Real People’, Third Committee Told
|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Sixty-fifth General Assembly
22nd & 23rd Meetings (AM & PM)
Sixty Years after Human Rights Declaration Adopted Challenge Remains Same — Bringing
Vision Closer to Ground, so It Touches ‘Lives of Real People’, Third Committee Told
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Addresses Committee;
Also Hears UN Experts on Myanmar; Minority Issues; Palestinian Territories
Human rights were too often discussed in the abstract and, despite all the changes in the past 60 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, the collective challenge remained the same — bringing the vision closer to the ground, so it could “touch the lives of real people”, the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) was told today.
Briefing the Committee on her work over the past year, Navanethem Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, told delegates, “I believe we can make a real difference only if we focus on implementation — on ensuring that the legal frameworks we agree together are universally applied and that every support and assistance is made available in this context.”
To expand the impact of human rights and produce coherent results rather than the “mere sum of fragmented initiatives”, all parts of the United Nations system needed to join efforts and coordinate action, she said. Last year’s establishment of the position of Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights in New York, in particular, would put human rights at the heart of decision-making at Headquarters and increase the imprint of human rights across the United Nations system.
Additionally, the recent establishment by the United Nations Development Group of a new Human Rights Mechanism would serve as the principal vehicle for ensuring cross-system coordination and coherence on human rights matters, and would help provide practical on-the-ground support for Resident Coordinators, United Nations country teams and regional United Nations Development Group teams.
Stating that she had approached her work with an eye to how the rights of people most at risk could be protected, she outlined the numerous ways in which the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) was having an impact in six areas — fighting poverty, inequality, discrimination, violence and impunity, and helping to strengthen human rights mechanisms.
Particularly through the OHCHR’s field presence and investigations, it offered expertise on the ground to help States build their institutional capacity to respond to human rights challenges, she said. With new offices opened over the past year, most recently in Guinea, OHCHR now comprised 56 field presences in all continents. OHCHR had also assisted a number of ad hoc independent fact-finding bodies mandated by the Human Rights Council, such as in Gaza, and fielded rapid response missions, including after the earthquake in Haiti and the recent crisis in Kyrgyzstan.
Ms. Pillay was joined by four other human rights experts today; two addressing the situation of human rights in Myanmar, and the others speaking on minority issues, and the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.
Following Ms. Pillay this morning, Vijay Nambiar, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General, introduced the report of the Secretary-General on the situation of human rights in Myanmar over the past year, from 26 August 2009 to 25 August 2010, with a focus on the upcoming 7 November elections.
“The most significant step on the political front since the issuance of new electoral laws and the establishment of the Election Commission in March was the announcement by the Government of the election date,” he said, noting that the country’s first elections in 20 years would be a major test for Myanmar’s democratic transition. Three elections would be organized simultaneously on 7 November: for the People’s Assembly and Assembly of the national legislature; and for the 14 regional and State legislatures.
While developments, such as the fact that a number of political parties had been able to register to contest the elections, suggested that some political space had opened up in Myanmar, by the standards of the past two decades, he said that they did not outweigh concerns about the political environment. There continued to be detention of political prisoners, absence of outside observers, and suspension of polling, which could undermine the credibility of the election process and efforts for national reconciliation.
In the afternoon, the Committee heard from the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, who called the process leading up to elections on 7 November as “deeply flawed”. Freedom of expression, assembly and association had been restricted, no prisoners of conscience had been released and tensions had increased in ethnic areas.
True national reconciliation and a commitment to human rights were necessary for any real transition, he said. Stressing the need for “justice and accountability”, he reiterated his proposal — first made to the Human Rights Council in March this year — for a Commission of Inquiry into possible crimes against humanity or war crimes. He regretted that his request to visit in August this year had been refused by the Government of Myanmar, but he hoped to return after the elections, concluding, “We must stand by the people of Myanmar at this critical moment.”
Responding to the statements, Thant Kyaw (Myanmar) said that cooperation with the United Nations was a cornerstone of Myanmar’s foreign policy. He explained that there were no political prisoners in Myanmar, and no individual had been incarcerated simply for his or her political beliefs. This year was extraordinarily important for Myanmar, as elections on 7 November were an important step in the transition towards a peaceful, modern and developed democratic State.
The international community, including the United Nations, could best assist by showing understanding, encouragement and support, he said. With peace and stability prevailing throughout the country, sensible progress with regard to socio-economic conditions had been seen. Despite sanctions and prescriptive measures imposed by certain countries, economic growth had been steady and foreign direct investment had grown. Myanmar looked forward to strengthening engagement with the United Nations and the international community in the post-election period.
With regard to the idea of setting up a commission of inquiry in Myanmar, which was noted by the Special Rapporteur, he stated that it was totally unacceptable and that there were no grounds whatsoever for the international community to conduct any kind of inquiry.
Also speaking today were Gay McDougall, Independent Expert on Minority Issues, and Richard Falk, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.
During a question and answer session with the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the representatives of Pakistan, Australia, Mexico, Russian Federation, Norway, Cuba, United States, Chile, Morocco, European Union, China, Switzerland, Syria, Algeria, United Kingdom, Malaysia, Brazil, Iran, Uzbekistan, Qatar, Djibouti, Benin, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Colombia spoke.
Questions and comments for the Independent Expert on minority issues were put by the representatives of Austria, Viet Nam and the European Union.
Questions and comments for the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar were put by the representatives of Myanmar, China, Thailand, Singapore, Switzerland, Norway, Russian Federation, India, Maldives, European Union, Laos, Viet Nam, Argentina, Liechtenstein, Malaysia, United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Czech Republic, Japan, Canada and Indonesia.
To the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, questions and comments were made by the representatives of Norway, Israel, Malaysia, Syria and the United States, and by the observer of the Palestinian Authority.
The Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. Thursday, 21 October, to continue its discussion on human rights, during which it will hear presentations by the Special Rapporteur on the right to food and the Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt. In the afternoon, the Committee will hear an introduction of a draft resolution on the rights of the child, followed by action on a draft resolution concerning social development, and then will hear presentations by the Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights defenders and on freedom of religion or belief.
The Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) met today to continue its discussion of the promotion and protection of human rights.
The Committee also had before it the report of the Secretary-General on moratoriums on the use of the death penalty (document A/65/280 and A/65/280/Corr.1). The report, which is submitted to the General Assembly pursuant to General Assembly resolution 63/168, confirms the global trend towards abolition of the death penalty. It also recommends that Member States introduce a moratorium on the death penalty. Those States which still intend to implement the death penalty and are not willing to establish a moratorium should apply the death penalty only in the case of the most serious crimes. The protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty should be ensured, pursuant to the relevant international laws. Furthermore, in that regard, States have an obligation not to practise the death penalty in secrecy, nor to practice discrimination in its application.
Also before the Committee was the report of the Secretary-General on the role of the Ombudsman, mediator and other national human rights institutions in the promotion and protection of human rights (document A/65/340). It contains information on the activities undertaken by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to establish and strengthen independent and autonomous Ombudsman, mediator and other national human rights institutions, and measures taken by Governments in that regard; support provided to those institutions at the international and regional levels; technical assistance provided to and on Ombudsman, mediator and other national human rights institutions, together with other United Nations agencies and programmes; and cooperation between those institutions and regional and international mechanisms to promote and protect human rights. Information regarding the work of Ombudsman, mediator and other national human rights institutions in respect of specific thematic issues is also included.
The Committee also had before it the report of the Secretary-General on regional arrangements for the promotion and protection of human rights (document A/65/369). The report focuses on the international workshop on enhancing cooperation between international and regional human rights mechanisms that was organized by OHCHR in compliance with Human Rights Council resolution 12/15 and held in Geneva on 3 and 4 May 2010. Participants included representatives of regional human rights mechanisms in Africa, the Americas and Europe, as well as representatives of sub-regional mechanisms in Africa and a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights. Independent experts from United Nations treaty bodies and special procedures, as well as representatives of Member States, national human rights institutions, non-governmental organizations and academics, also participated in the workshop. Conclusions of the report include the following: Mechanisms need to be established to reinforce international and regional cooperation regarding information-sharing and joint activities; biennial meetings should be held with the participation of representatives of international and regional human rights mechanisms, Governments, national human rights institutions, and non-governmental organizations to discuss ways of strengthening cooperation; and focal points should be appointed in every human rights mechanism to maintain regular communication and facilitate the plan of work.
It also had before a note by the Secretariat regarding the report of the Secretary-General on the right to development (document A/65/256), informing the Committee that the consolidated report of the Secretary-General and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the right to development (document A/HRC/15/24) would be submitted to both the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly, according to established practice.
The report of the Secretary-General on human rights and unilateral coercive measures (document A/65/119) noted that four States had submitted their views regarding that topic. One of the States, Syria, underlined its concern over legislation in the United States entitled “the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Restoration Act”, which it regarded as a violation of international law which negatively affected Syria’s exercise of the right to development. The views of the other three States — Argentina, Belarus and Russia — were included in another report of the Secretary-General submitted to the Human Rights Council (document A/HRC/15/43).
The Committee had before it the report of the Secretary-General on the draft programme of activities for the International Year for People of African Descent (document A/65/227 and A65/227/Add.1), which began on 1 January 2011, with a view to strengthening national actions and regional and international cooperation for the benefit of people of African descent in relation to their full enjoyment of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights; their participation and integration in all political, economic, social and cultural aspects of society; and the promotion of a greater knowledge of and respect for their diverse heritage and culture.
The report contains summaries of recommendations for contributing to the success of the Year from Member States (Algeria, Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States of America), as well as United Nations bodies such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent of the Human Rights Council. It concludes with a draft agenda of activities.
It also had before it the report of the Secretary-General on protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism (document A/65/224). The report refers to recent developments within the United Nations system in relation to human rights and counter-terrorism, including through the activities of OHCHR, the Human Rights Council and its various special procedures mandates, the human rights treaty bodies, the Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force and its Working Group on Protecting Human Rights while Countering Terrorism, the Counter-Terrorism Committee and the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate. It outlines the consideration by the United Nations human rights system of issues, including compliance of legislation, policies and practices for countering terrorism with international law, including international human rights law.
The report concludes that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the human rights treaty bodies, the Human Rights Council and its various special procedures continue to express grave concerns regarding practices of torture and ill-treatment of detainees, the vague and broad definition of terrorism in national legislations, the lack of safeguards related to due process and fair trial, and incommunicado detention. Member States are urged to fully implement the Global Strategy on Counter-Terrorism, and to promote respect for human rights and the rule of law as the fundamental basis of all counter-terrorism measures, in particular by ensuring respect for the absolute prohibition of torture, guarantees under international law for persons deprived of liberty, and legality in the criminalization of acts of terrorism.
The Committee also had before it the report of the Secretary-General on the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (document A/65/257). The report provides summaries of replies by Member States ( Argentina, Colombia, Cuba, Finland, Georgia, Guatemala, Japan, Mexico, Paraguay, Slovakia and Switzerland) to the invitation to transmit relevant information pertaining to the implementation of General Assembly resolution 64/167 on the Convention. The report also includes information on the activities of the Secretary-General, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, United Nations agencies and organizations, and intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations in relation to the dissemination and promotion of the Convention.
The Committee also had before it the report of the Secretary-General on promotion and protection of human rights, including ways and means to promote the human rights of migrants (document A/65/156). The report contains a summary of replies concerning the implementation of General Assembly resolution 63/184 from Egypt, Guatemala, Qatar, Serbia and Spain, and resolution 64/166 from Belarus, Greece, Japan, Lithuania, Mexico, Spain, Switzerland and Turkey. It also provides information on the status of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, and on the activities of the Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, of the universal periodic review of the Human Rights Council, and of OHCHR, with particular reference to activities and partnerships in the context of promoting the rights of migrant children.
The Secretary-General’s report concludes by urging Member States: to integrate the rights and participation of migrant children into the formulation, implementation and monitoring of all relevant legislation and administrative regulations; to end the criminalization of irregular migrants and first explore adequate alternatives to such detention, particularly for children; to adopt comprehensive national plans of action, informed by international human rights standards, to strengthen the protection of migrants; and to achieve policy coherence at the national, regional and international levels regarding issues associated with migration, including ensuring coordinated child protection policies and systems across borders.
The Committee also had before it the report of the Secretary-General on globalization and its impact on the full enjoyment of all human rights (document A/65/171). The report summarizes views from the Governments of Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Burkina Faso, Colombia, Guatemala, Mauritius, Mexico, Oman, Qatar, the Russian Federation, Serbia and Spain, as well as from the United Nations Development Programme, the World Intellectual Property Organization and the World Trade Organization (WTO), on ways to address the impact of globalization on the full enjoyment of all human rights.
It recommends that the international community: work towards enhanced policy coherence and coordination to make progress towards the Millennium Development Goals; address the needs of the poor and most vulnerable, and avoid policies and discriminatory practices that further deteriorate their livelihood; create an environment conducive to development and the equal sharing of benefits and costs when formulating policies, and promote good governance at both the national and global levels; ensure better and more effective regulation of the global financial system to prevent crises, and promote debt sustainability and debt alleviation initiatives; work towards a development-oriented outcome of the Doha Round of negotiations to ensure an open and fairer multilateral trading system; consider the particularities and vulnerabilities of the least developed countries, small island developing States and landlocked developing countries in the design and implementation of development strategies, recognizing there is no one-size-fits-all development model; and develop concerted approaches to prevent business-related human rights abuses.
The Committee also had before it the report of the Secretary-General on combating defamation of religions (document A/65/263). The report, which is submitted in accordance with General Assembly resolution 64/156, focuses on the implementation of the resolution, including the correlation between defamation of religions and the intersection of religion and race, the upsurge in incitement, intolerance and hatred in many parts of the world and steps taken by States to combat this phenomenon. The conclusions of the report include the following: treaty body findings and reports by special procedures of the Human Rights Council expressed alarm over discrimination and incitement to hatred against Muslim communities, while also highlighting restrictions, discrimination and incitement affecting other religious minorities in different parts of the world; intersectional identities that combine race or ethnicity with religious affiliation, and the multiple forms of discrimination resulting from this intersectionality were also increasingly recognized, as illustrated by the recent decision on Nigeria of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination; and the OHCHR, through a number of initiatives, has been seeking to make a concrete contribution to the prevention and the elimination of incitement to national, racial or religious hatred and to the fight against Islamophobia and other forms of intolerance.
The Committee also had before it the report of the Secretary-General on missing persons (document A/65/285). The report grouped information received from the Governments of Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, Georgia, Greece, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Oman, Panama, Paraguay, the Russian Federation, Slovakia, Spain, the Syrian Arab Republic and Ukraine, as well as from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Commission on Missing Persons, and the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team into four general issues: measures to prevent persons from going missing; the right to know; developments in forensic sciences; and the question of impunity.
The report concluded that it is essential for Member States to adopt measures improving each of these issues. Because the problem of missing persons is particularly severe in the context of armed conflict and its aftermath, States should minimize the phenomenon by establishing processes to locate, identify and repatriate the missing to their families. With regard to forensic sciences, access to independent forensic investigations of violations of human rights should be improved; enhanced contacts between independent forensic experts and local judiciaries, prosecutors, judges and lawyers should be established; and the need for training local forensic experts should be recognized. States are also called upon to ratify relevant international treaties, in particular the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, and bring their domestic laws and practices into conformity with that Convention.
The Committee also had before it the report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on behalf of the United Nations Inter-Agency Coordinating Committee on Human Rights Education in the School System on the final evaluation of the implementation of the first phase of the World Programme for Human Rights Education (document A/65/322). The final evaluation report finds that the 76 Member States that provided national evaluation reports are taking measures to integrate human rights education in their school systems, while other policy areas seem to be overlooked, in particular, as far as teacher training is concerned. There are also a number of national initiatives in terms of policy and action to foster a culture of respect for human rights in daily school life. Certain gaps in implementation remain, which suggests the need for a more comprehensive and systematic approach at the national level. Accordingly, Member States are encouraged to consolidate progress further by continuing implementation in line with the guidance and framework provided by the plan of action.
The report concluded that Member States should undertake, as a minimum, the first two stages of national implementation of the World Programme for Human Rights Education: a situation analysis, followed by the setting of priorities and development of a national implementation strategy. It also makes recommendations to Governments wishing to take further steps to implement human rights education in the school system, such as making use of the human rights education materials and tools developed by national, regional and international institutions and organizations as a way of addressing resource issues. While the World Programme now transitions to its second phase (2010-2014) with a new focus on different sectors (i.e. higher education, teachers and educators, civil servants, law enforcement officials and military personnel), work on primary- and secondary-level education needs to continue.
The Committee also had before it the report of the independent expert on the effective promotion of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (document A/65/287). This is the first report submitted by the independent expert on minority issues, Gay McDougall, outlining the activities carried out under her mandate since its establishment in July 2005. The report focuses on the role of the protection of minority rights in conflict prevention. Among the essential elements of a strategy to prevent conflicts involving minorities are respect for minority rights, particularly with regard to equality in access to economic and social opportunities; effective participation of minorities in decision-making; dialogue between minorities and majorities within societies; and the constructive development of practices and institutional arrangements to accommodate diversity within society.
Significantly, the independent expert emphasizes that attention to minority rights at an early stage — before grievances lead to tensions and violence — would make an invaluable contribution to the culture of prevention within the United Nations, save countless lives and promote stability and development. Among the recommendations included in the report is the suggestion that expertise in minority rights should be strengthened and integrated comprehensively across the United Nations system.
The Committee had before it a note by the Secretary-General on the report of the Working Group on the Right to Development on its eleventh session (document A/65/87), drawing the attention of the General Assembly to the report of the Working Group on its eleventh session, held in Geneva from 26 to 30 April 2010, contained in document A/HRC/15/23.
The Committee also had before it the report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar (document A/65/368). It focuses on human rights in relation to elections called for 7 November 2010, and the issue of justice and accountability. It states that conditions for genuine elections are limited under the current circumstances; moreover, the potential for these elections to bring meaningful change and improvement to the human rights situation in Myanmar remains uncertain. Regarding the issue of justice and accountability, the Special Rapporteur notes that, while it is foremost the responsibility of the Government of Myanmar to address the problem of gross and systematic human rights violations by all parties, that responsibility falls to the international community if the Government fails to assume it.
The Special Rapporteur recommends that the Government of Myanmar respect freedom of expression and opinion and freedom of assembly and association in the context of the national elections; release all prisoners of conscience; address justice and accountability; implement the four core human rights elements, as detailed in his previous reports; and facilitate access for humanitarian assistance and continue developing cooperation with the international human rights system.
Finally, the Committee had before the report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967(document A/65/331). It considers developments relevant to the obligations of Israel under international law, as well as the situation of people living in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Emphasis is given to the cumulative impact of Israeli policies in the West Bank and East Jerusalem arising from prolonged occupation, which exhibits features of colonialism and apartheid, as well as transforming a de jure condition of occupation into a circumstance of de facto annexation. These developments encroach on the inalienable Palestinian right of self-determination in fundamentally detrimental ways, according to the report.
Attention is also devoted to habitual concerns involving settlement growth in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the problems posed by the continued construction of the separation wall, issues of collective punishment, and a variety of other human rights concerns, including concern over the health-related and other adverse impacts of the continuing blockade of the 1.5 million residents of Gaza, consideration of the “Freedom Flotilla” incident of 31 May 2010 and the continuing effort to assess whether Israel and the responsible Palestinian authorities have carried out adequate investigations of war crimes allegations arising from the Gaza conflict of 2008-2009.
Statement by the High Commissioner for Human Rights
NAVANETHEM PILLAY, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that, because world crises, such as the financial crash, conflict, natural calamities and the continuing threat of climate change, had exposed the vulnerability of people who were already the poorest, most marginalized and least protected, her first priority had been to approach every task with an eye to how OHCHR and the wider United Nations system could best protect rights at risk. “I believe we can make a real difference only if we focus on implementation on ensuring that the legal frameworks, we agree together, are universally applied and that every support and assistance is made available in this context,” she said.
She expressed appreciation to Member States for supporting the establishment of the position of Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights in New York, stating that the approval of that post signalled the importance the membership placed on putting human rights at the heart of United Nations decision-making at Headquarters and would increase the imprint of human rights across the United Nations system.
She said she wanted to highlight the ways in which her Office’s work was having an impact in six areas — fighting poverty, inequality, discrimination, violence and impunity, and helping to strengthen human rights mechanisms — as well as draw attention to persisting concerns and offer some general observations. Stating that the fight against poverty and disempowerment was at the forefront of last month’s Summit and that development could not be imposed, but must be a “common journey” where people were empowered through human rights principles of equality and participation, she noted the summit’s outcome document that bound States to respect human rights in their development policies and provided a framework for filling gaps. OHCHR was also directly involved in supporting the process of the adoption of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and would continue to work towards its ratification. Given that another key dimension of OHCHR’s work was the promotion of the right to development, she reminded the Committee that next year’s 25th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Right to Development should be celebrated with a renewed commitment to that right and reported that the Human Rights Council had resolved to commemorate the anniversary.
Regarding discrimination, much of the OHCHR’s focus had been on racial discrimination, particularly as a follow-up to last year’s Durban Review Conference. Her Office provided technical assistance to States for the development of national action plans to counter racial discrimination, and supported the 2010 session of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, which examined structural discrimination in areas such as education, health and the administration of justice. Because discrimination against migrants was “not only linked to anxiety and competition over scarce jobs and fewer economic opportunities, but it also embodies ethnic, racial and religious prejudices.” OHCHR sought to give it greater prominence, and all United Nations agencies and international entities in the Global Migration Group, of which OHCHR was the chair, had issued a joint statement on September 30 on the human rights of irregular migrants. Her Office also released a study with expert advice on “Protecting the Rights of the Child in the Context of Migration” and raised the profile of conditions of migrants in detention centres. Additionally, as women were often victims of discrimination that exposed them to violence, she applauded the recent General Assembly Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons, as well as the establishment of UN Women.
The protection of civilians affected by conflict was an essential element of any meaningful conception of peace and security, she said, noting that OHCHR, particularly through its field presences and investigations, offered expertise to help States build their institutional capacity to respond to human rights challenges. With new offices opened over the past year, most recently in Guinea, OHCHR now comprised 56 field presences in all continents. OHCHR had assisted a number of ad hoc independent fact-finding bodies mandated by the Human Rights Council, such as in Gaza, and fielded rapid response missions, including after the earthquake in Haiti and the recent crisis in Kyrgyzstan. Further, OHCHR’s commitment to combating impunity was reflected in a two-year effort to document evidence of major violations of human rights and humanitarian law, including gender violence committed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 1993 to 2003, which produced a report earlier this month seeking to honour the memory of victims of the conflict.
She hoped the report would help the country along the difficult path of coming to terms with that period of “intense human suffering”. Its overarching objective was to enable the Government to identify appropriate transitional justice mechanisms to deal with the legacy of those violations in terms of truth, justice, reparation and reform, and to end impunity. She pointed out that her Office played a key role in addressing such transitional systems and had also recently deployed a high-level panel of experts, who held a series of hearing in various parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo with survivors of sexual violence. That project fit squarely with in the aims of Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security.
With regard to human rights mechanisms, she noted that the Human Rights Council “has achieved much” — holding its 15th session last month; two special sessions over the course of the year on the occupied Palestinian territories and East Jerusalem, and Haiti; an interactive dialogue on Somalia and, for the first time, in June, an urgent debate following “the grave attacks by Israeli forces against the humanitarian boat convoy”. Those sessions had provided an opportunity to increase interaction between OHCHR and the Council. She added that she was encouraged by the constructive spirit in which countries’ engage in the Council’s Universal Periodic Review, and said that OHCHR had continued to provide support to the special procedures system, with 13 new mandate-holders expected to join by the end of 2010. The total of standing invitations by States had reached 72, which was a positive development towards bolstering a constructive dialogue between States and those experts. Discussing the review of the Human Rights Council, which began last month in Geneva, as well as other treaty bodies, she emphasized that sufficient resources were a precondition to keep fulfilling their functions and those functions were at the heart of the human rights system.
Concluding with observations regarding the role of human rights in the United Nations system, she spoke about the need to involve all parts of the system, saying, “It is only by joining efforts and coordinating action that we can produce coherent results rather than the mere sum of fragmented initiatives.” The recent establishment by the United Nations Development Group (UNDG) of a new Human Rights Mechanism would serve as the principal vehicle for ensuring cross-system coordination and coherence on human rights matter and would help provide practical on-the-ground support. Noting that OHCHR would lead efforts to implement the activities of the Human Rights Mechanism, in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), she appealed to Member States for their continued support and reported that, earlier this month, UNDG approved an initial workplan that allowed voluntary contributions to support planned activities.
At the national level, OHCHR’s focus was on encouraging United Nations partners to implement recommendations of human rights mechanism, adding to the rationale of “delivering as one”. “Which brings me back to where I began my remarks: our impact on the ground,” she said. “Human rights are too often discussed in abstract, technical or sometimes highly political terms. But if our work is to be worthwhile, it must touch the lives of real people. For all the changes of the last two years, indeed of the past 60 years, our collective challenge remains the same; it brings closer to the ground the vision of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of a world where all human beings enjoy their lives in dignity.”
Question and Answer Session
The High Commissioner then fielded questions from 25 representatives, who spoke consecutively. She opted to “cluster” her responses on such issues as general management and the work of human rights mechanisms, thematic issues, field work and country-specific issues.
Regarding the work of the Assistant Secretary-General at the New York office of her Office, she said that he would be briefing delegations fully on the work of the Human Rights Council vis-à-vis the General Assembly and the Security Council, meeting them individually and in groups. There was a clear and continuing trend in improving the overall geographic representation of staff at her Office since measures were introduced to that effect in 2006. Those measures would be pursued as long as necessary, including “widely” advertising vacancies and holding another round of competitive examinations for candidates from under-represented States. The previous examination had yielded an excellent field of candidates from a variety of countries.
She gave statistics on the changing regional distribution of her staff, noting for instance a 55 per cent increase in staff from Africa since 2006, an increased of 49 per cent from Asia, and more than 100 per cent from Eastern Europe. It was a fact, however, that she had inherited a system in which the overwhelming majority of staff came from the Western Europe and Other group of States. It was the Member States who had put into place rules that restricted her flexibility with regard to staffing, and she appealed for some of those rules to be suspended.
Regarding the review of the work of the Human Rights Council, she said that it would formally begin next week; the President of the Council would be able to brief the Committee on its first inter-governmental working group session when he comes before it on 2 November. She had set out her own views in a non-paper that States were invited to look at. While the review was an inter-governmental process, she appreciated the opportunity to participate in it. The review was not a reform exercise, but an objective self-evaluation which aimed to improve the work of the Human Rights Council.
The High Commissioner disagreed with the representative of Cuba, who expressed concern that the Human Rights Council might be reverting to the problems that affected its predecessor. The Council was the premier body within the United Nations to address human rights violations everywhere. Its role was not to shame, but to address how best to improve a human rights situation. The Council was elaborating more and more of its tools, an example being its interactive dialogue with Somalia recently, with the minister of justice of that country participating. Outcomes did not always have to be resolutions; presidential statements were an alternative. The Council was the United Nations body with responsibility to address human rights issues everywhere, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights stood ready to assist it. Regarding a General Assembly review of the Council, it was an opportunity to address the relationship between it and the Council, including lines of reporting.
Regarding the selection of special procedure mandate holders, including Special Rapporteurs, she said a new selection process — under which 48 new mandate-holders had been appointed since March 2008 — featured a degree of transparency; they were appointed from a shortlist drawn up by a consultative group, which in turn worked from a public list maintained by OHCHR. States were invited to submit names to that public list. Well-known experts continued to be appointed, and expertise should be the primary consideration in making appointments. Special procedures had their own code of conduct to which they were bound; their coordinating committee took that code very seriously and an internal advisory procedure had been set up. The profile of special procedures within the United Nations system had been growing, and they would keep being engaged in various thematic panels. Country teams were encouraged to engage with special procedures, whose work also contributed to the Universal Periodic Review.
Responding to the representatives of the European Union and China, the High Commissioner expressed appreciation for their support of her Office’s independence. She believed that the Office and the Human Rights Council could, and did, work together through genuine constructive consultation and cooperation, but a formal system of oversight could compromise the Office, which was a part of the Secretariat and reported to the General Assembly and the Secretary-General. Measures to strengthen treaty bodies were welcomed. Since 2004, the treaty body system had almost doubled in size, while States had increased ratification and reporting. Work has been underway to harmonize working methods and streamline the treaty body system. Member States should seriously consider the resources necessary to enable treaty bodies to function fully, in the manner that States would like them to. It was the success of the treaty bodies that had resulted in the extra burden on them.
The right to development was an issue close to the heart of the High Commissioner, who said she would pursue activities to that end, including global partnerships with a wide range of actors. She was aware of the interest of States in the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Declaration of the Right to Development; she had proposed that the Human Rights Council invite the heads of United Nations system agencies to a special session in 2011 that would be an opportunity to reflect on progress made and consider what could be done in the future.
Efforts to mainstream human rights throughout the United Nations system had accelerated in recent years, she said. It was an initiative that had been part of the package of measures set out by the former Secretary-General in “An Agenda for Change”. Regarding migration, a concern raised by the representative of Mexico, she said that some kind of global governance for migration should be addressed; migration was a thematic priority that would be mainstreamed in both country teams and in the field. Regarding discrimination and defamation of religion, an issue raised by the representatives of Pakistan and Malaysia, she said that workshops into the matter would be taking place in Vienna, Nairobi, Bangkok and Santiago, to which Member States were invited to contribute. Contact had also been made with the Alliance of Civilizations, and she would be making a report to the March 2011 session of the Human Rights Council on a resolution on combating discrimination and defamation of religion.
Turning to the question of field offices, she said that there was no doubt that human rights components should be included in all peacekeeping missions. Human rights were quintessential to all peace processes. Most field offices had been set up as human rights components of peacekeeping missions established by Security Council resolutions; human rights advisers had also been posted at the request of country teams, seven of them in Europe. Another five were in Africa, where they advised country teams internally. The Office’s own field offices had been established in formal agreement with host countries, following direct consultation with the country concerned; that was the right approach when dealing with sovereign States. Such field offices should be seen as valuable resources. In the Asia-Pacific region, the Office had regional offices in Bangkok (serving the ASEAN countries) and Suva (covering the Pacific region, as well as Australia and New Zealand). The Office was consulting with States in North-East Asia on a proposal from the Republic of Korea to host a regional office there. Meanwhile, in Qatar, a training and document centre had been established.
Responding to the representative of Pakistan on the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir, she said her Office had been following recent developments with great concern. The situation on the Indian side remained volatile; she has been and would be in direct contact with the authorities concerned. Discussions about Gaza and Golan had been under way at the Human Rights Council. A report on sexual violence carried out by armed groups in Nord-Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo, had been issued in September; the High Commissioner has offered the support of her Office in investigating the incidents and bringing the perpetrators to justice. Another report would be released shortly on conversations with victims of sexual violence in Democratic Republic of Congo that would include how they see the response of the law, as well as the reparations they needed.
Statement by Special Adviser
VIJAY NAMBIAR, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General, introduced the report of the Secretary-General (document A/65/367) on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, which provided an overview of developments over the past year, from 26 August 2009 to 25 August 2010. Consistent with the Secretary-General’s three-pillar approach of engagement in political, humanitarian and development areas, the report was organized around a five-point agenda: the release of political prisoners and other human rights concerns; national dialogue and reconciliation; the political transition and electoral process; humanitarian and socio-economic cooperation; and mutual engagement through the good offices process. He prefaced his statement by saying that the ability to provide a detailed assessment of the situation on the ground was limited due to the lack of direct engagement by the Myanmar authorities, although he had been engaged with the country’s Foreign Minister and with the Permanent Representative of Myanmar, while the Secretary-General had addressed the issue with all the Foreign Ministers of ASEAN.
“The most significant step on the political front since the issuance of new electoral laws and the establishment of the Election Commission in March was the announcement by the Government of the election date,” he said. Three elections would be organized simultaneously on November 7: for the People’s Assembly and Assembly of the national legislature; and for the 14 regional and State legislatures. Meanwhile, the Election Commission had overseen the registration process of political parties and requirements for contesting in the elections. Forty-two political parties had registered, including 5 out of 10 existing parties that had contested the 1990 election. On 14 September, the Commission had declared 10 parties “null and void” in accordance with election laws, such as the National League for Democracy and four other parties for failing to renew their registration. On 16 September, the Commission had also announced that voting would not take place in some ethnic minority areas, with the official reason given that they “are not in a position to hold free and fair elections”. It was not clear whether the election process would be completed in these localities at a future date.
Besides the two large establishment parties, Union Solidarity and Development Party and National Unity Party, and two prominent opposition parties, the National Democratic Force and the Democratic Party, the other parties — a majority of which were ethnic-dominated — represented a wide range of constituencies, he said. A number of independent candidates were also reported to be running. As in 1990, election would be on a first-past-the-post basis, a system which tended to favour large parties facing multiple opponents. While over 3,000 candidates were expected to participate in the elections, the organizational and financial capacities of parties remained a significant factor affecting their canvassing strategies, with some analysts stating that Union Solidarity and Development Party and National Unity Party would field the largest number of candidates, while National Democratic Force and the Shan National Democratic Party would field a much more limited number. Reports described a mixed political atmosphere on the ground, whereas some pointed to restrictions and the absence of a level playing field, others pointed to degree of political activity not seen since 1990.
As significant as the developments had been, they did not outweigh concerns about the political environment, he said. There continued to be detention of political prisoners, absence of outside observers, and suspension of polling, which could undermine the credibility of the election process and efforts for national reconciliation. Noting that the electoral and political process was taking place at a time when Myanmar was undergoing a broader generational transition, he said that recognition should be given to the Myanmar people, whether or not they chose to participate in the election, including political leaders not yet released from detention. On 27 September, confirmation was received that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s name had been included in the rolls with the right to vote and, on 8 October, the Supreme Court reportedly accepted to hear the appeal against her continued house arrest. “How the authorities deal with what is likely to be a more complex and diverse set of actors in the weeks and months ahead will therefore also influence international perceptions of the election process as a whole,” he said.
On the humanitarian front, the mandate of the Tripartite Core Group mechanism by the Government of Myanmar, the United Nations and ASEAN was officially terminated on 31 July 2010, demonstrating that it was possible to work together in accordance with international standards. A new agreement between the United Nations and the Government for collaborating on a two-year Joint Humanitarian Initiative for Northern Rakhine State also aimed at providing a unified response to meet immediate needs, while focusing on long-term development goals. On the development front, the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and the Government continued to be engaged in dialogue aimed at addressing the country’s socio-economic challenges.
“The Committee is taking up the issue of Myanmar at an important time for peace, democracy and prosperity in the country,” he said, stating that a little over two weeks remained before the country’s first elections in 20 years, and that this was a major test for Myanmar’s democratic transition. The elections could be a great opportunity, as inclusive elections could unite the country. On the other hand, failure to seize the opportunity could undermine the credibility of the democratic process. Despite initial signs of flexibility, the Government had so far been unresponsive to the Committee’s calls for fuller engagement. It was regrettable that opportunities to advance dialogue among key stakeholders like Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had not been pursued, and it was of concern that negotiations between the Government and some ethnic ceasefire groups remained pending. The fact that a number of parties had registered to contest the elections, though, suggested that some political space had opened up, by the standards of the past two decades. While the Government had not taken up proposals by the United Nations that could enhance inclusiveness, it was not too late for it to take the necessary steps to ensure a participatory and transparent process.
He concluded that elections were only one step in the transition, and reversing two generations of non-democratic rule and improving living conditions would take time. Myanmar stood to benefit greatly from the United Nations support for political facilitation, humanitarian assistance and sustainable development. “We must continue to urge the Government to adopt a more constructive and forward-looking approach to the international community’s engagement,” he said, noting that the endorsement by the Secretary-General’s Group of Friends of the need to help address Myanmar’s challenges provided a common platform, and that Myanmar should, in that context, hear shared encouragement, concerns and expectations.
Responding to the statement by the Under-Secretary-General and Special Adviser, THANT KYAW ( Myanmar) said cooperation with the United Nations was a cornerstone of Myanmar’s foreign policy. It was in that spirit that it cooperated with the United Nations and invited its officials to visit. The Secretary-General had visited Myanmar twice in less than 14 months; he also met the Prime Minister twice within 15 months and there was a good chance that they would see each other again during the ASEAN-United Nations summit in Hanoi later this month. The former Special Adviser, Ibrahim Gambari, had visited nine times. Full cooperation had been extended during such visits. The present Special Adviser had said that he had not been extended an invitation, but in fact he had not been able to visit due to scheduling conflicts on both sides. Further, he had ample opportunity to engage with the Myanmar mission in New York, and a visit to Myanmar could be arranged at an appropriate time.
There were no political prisoners in Myanmar, and no individual had been incarcerated simply for his or her political beliefs, he said. Those serving time had been tried and convicted of breaking existing laws. Since 1989, amnesties had been granted 15 times to a total of 115,000 prisoners who had shown good conduct. This year was extraordinarily important for Myanmar, where multi-party general elections would be held on 7 November. Those elections were a fifth step on the roadmap to democracy, an important step in the transition towards a peaceful, modern and developed democratic State, in line with a time-bound transition towards democracy. No efforts were being spared to implement the transition process, so as to fulfil the aspirations of Myanmar’s people. The international community, including the United Nations, could best assist by showing understanding, encouragement and support. With peace and stability prevailing throughout the country, sensible progress with regard to socio-economic conditions had been seen. Despite sanctions and prescriptive measures imposed by certain countries, economic growth had been steady and foreign direct investment had grown. Myanmar’s transition to democracy was on track and its Government was doing its utmost to establish a multi-party democratic State. Myanmar looked forward to strengthening engagement with the United Nations and the international community in the post-election period, and it hoped that the Secretary-General would use his good offices to help it reach its destiny.
Independent Expert on Minority Issues
GAY MCDOUGALL, Independent Expert on Minority Issues, presenting her first report to the General Assembly in her current capacity, based on her learning from five years of service on behalf of this mandate, said that attention to minority issues and minority rights violations at an early stage would make an invaluable contribution to the culture of prevention within the United Nations, save countless lives and promote stability and development. Her report highlighted that the essential elements of a strategy to prevent conflicts involving minorities included respect for minority rights, dialogue between minorities and majorities within society and constructive development of practices to accommodate diversity within society.
“The link between minority rights and conflict prevention and resolution is clear and has been made by many,” she said. According to a recent survey, over 55 per cent of violent conflicts of significant intensity between 2007 and 2009 had violations of minority rights or tensions between communities at their core, and, in a further 22 per cent, minority issues were raised in the course of the conflict, indicating that the international community needed to allocate attention and resources to minority issues as sources of conflict.
Steps had been taken over recent years to reposition international engagement with conflict situations from the point of reaction to a point of identification of early warnings, with evidence indicating that incorporating minority rights indicators into early warning systems was essential to enable an earlier identification of potential conflicts. More typical early warning indicators, such as small arms flows and movements of displaced peoples, tended to reflect a situation that was already rapidly spiralling into violence. Better insight was needed into why certain situations escalated into violence, and early warning systems needed to combine the collection of quantitative data with qualitative analysis to help determine when conflict would break out. Foremost among her recommendations to the United Nations was that minority rights expertise should be integrated comprehensively across the United Nations system; permanent in-house expertise on minority issues would also be beneficial.
Governments should take a proactive approach to minority rights, putting protections in place long before tensions erupt, as well as allowing minorities to freely use their language, practise their culture and religion and participate in political and economic life, she said. Among the most important measures for States was to provide channels to raise minority issues and allow minorities to participate in decision-making. She outlined three areas of priority related to minorities and conflict prevention: meaningful participation of minorities in the political arena and at all levels of civil service, including the police and judiciary; protection of culturally distinctive identities within societies, particularly with regard to language; and combating economic exclusion and discrimination in access to any kind of resources, whether jobs, land ownership, political power or natural resources.
She also stated that, in her report, she had proposed a series of recommendations to States to fulfil their human rights obligations, increase political and social stability and contribute to the prevention of violent conflicts. She concluded by noting the work of the Forum on Minority Issues, stating that, in her capacity as Independent Expert, she had guided the Forum’s work in providing an important United Nations platform for minorities. The third Forum would take place in December 2010 and would be dedicated to the issue of minorities and effective participation in economic life.
Question and Answer Session
The Independent Expert then responded to questions from the representatives of Austria, Viet Nam and the European Union. While there has been much gathering and pooling of information, efforts have focused on very specific crimes, such as genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. She said information should be looked at more broadly, so as to identify “upstream” situations in time to trigger higher-level diplomatic and political attention, technical assistance and donor cooperation. In that way, grievances could be identified and addressed before they could turn violent. One possibility could be an inter-agency guidance note on minorities, to be applied across the specialized agencies and mechanisms of the United Nations. Such guidance was in place for indigenous peoples and had had a great beneficial impact.
She said that, during the past five years, she had found that understanding the lives of minority women provided “a great portal” into understanding the situation of minorities in a country, in general. Others had found that violence against women was an indicator of difficult times on the ground and looming, more generalized conflict. Everyone had a role to play in increasing the capacity of minority women to play a greater leadership role in their communities and nations, and therefore a more concerted attention to the situation of minority women was needed. The United Nations had made great strides in the past 10 to 15 years in focusing on the situation of women, but insufficient attention had been given to the status of minority women, and more should be done in that respect.
Recalling her visit to Viet Nam as a “tremendous learning experience,” she said that it had brought to light the importance of bilingual education for minority children who spoke a different language from the majority and whose families and communities had had limited access to education in the past. Viet Nam was a very interesting situation, with over 130 different ethnic groups and many language groups. It hoped to be able to stress to specialized agencies, such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the importance of spending more resources on helping countries preserve their rich linguistic heritage.
Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar
The Committee then returned to the situation of human rights in Myanmar, hearing from TOMAS OJEA QUINTANA, Special Rapporteur on the issue. He said the upcoming elections in Myanmar were an important moment, the first national elections in 20 years. Many people inside the country had chosen to participate in what many observers had noted was a difficult electoral environment, since they believed it was the best opportunity to bring about substantive change. Therefore, he had watched the process unfold for the better part of this year with disappointment. “It is clear that this process remains deeply flawed,” he said. Further restrictions had been placed on freedom of expression and assembly and association. No prisoners of conscience have been released. Parties not backed by the Government had been hampered by registration requirements, the high cost of registering candidates and a limited time for organizing. A number of ethnic parties had been excluded, and elections cancelled in 300 villages in ethnic areas. Tensions have meanwhile increased in ethnic areas. Many concerned Member States had continued to call for “free, fair, all-inclusive and transparent elections”, he said. At a minimum, the Government should heed the call from many people to release all 2,000-plus prisoners of conscience.
The Government had rightly highlighted that the elections were only one step in Myanmar’s democratic transition process. “We must remember that true national reconciliation and a commitment to human rights were also necessary for any real transition,” he said. Myanmar must make progress in overcoming political deadlock and armed conflict and that could only come through genuine dialogue among all stake holders. A meaningful democratic transition and national reconciliation process should result in a system in which all stakeholders could be heard and the people of Myanmar could participate in the governance of their richly diverse country. Justice and accountability were key. `“Now is the time to end the widespread and systematic violations of human rights that have been occurring in Myanmar for decades,” he said. His report elaborates on the proposal for a Commission of Inquiry into possible crimes against humanity or war crimes, which he first raised in his report to the Human Rights Council in March. The new Government in Myanmar could either be part of the solution to impunity, or continue to perpetuate a situation whereby human rights were systematically denied. Such a Commission, for which support had been expressed by a number of Member States, would not preclude international engagement with the new Government; the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) experience in conducting an inquiry in 1997 into forced labour in Myanmar, and the subsequent adoption by the Government of a law in 1999 banning forced labour, was a good example that it could be done.
The Special Rapporteur recalled three visits he had made to Myanmar since the beginning of his mandate, during which he had been able to speak with a number of prisoners of conscience in several prisons, as well as senior executive and judicial authorities and representatives of some political parties. He regretted that his request to visit in August this year had not been granted; it was hoped that he could start a meaningful dialogue with the new leaders inside Myanmar and other stakeholders immediately after the elections. The people of Myanmar had waited many long years for the transition; they deserved a better future and support of the international community ensuring a real transition takes root. At the same time, the new Government must be willing to abide by international human rights principles, and to show the political will to continue constructive engagement with the United Nations and the international community. “We must stand by the people of Myanmar at this critical moment,” he said.
Mr. KYAW ( Myanmar) said that the presentation of the Special Rapporteur contained a few positive developments, but most of the real facts were missing, and the presentation was replete with unfounded allegations emanating from remnant insurgents and expatriate groups opposing the Government and lacked objectivity. Stating that the full cooperation of the Myanmar authorities had been granted to the Special Rapporteur, he would highlight positive developments that had not been reflected in the report. A free and fair multi-party general election would be held on 7 November 2010, where the people of Myanmar would be exercising their democratic right to elect representatives reflecting their interests. Further, international statistics had shown that casualties in Myanmar due to armed conflict since the Second World War were less than 1 per cent, compared to other internal conflicts. There was no impunity for the Myanmar military regarding human rights violations and, from 1990 to April 2010, punitive actions against 210 military personnel had been taken.
With a view to protecting human rights, he said the Government had established a human rights body headed by the Minister for Home Affairs, where people could lodge complaints about injustices and, from January to August 2010, 503 submissions had been received. Additionally, Myanmar would be reviewed by the Human Rights Council under the Universal Periodic Review in January 2011, and had already submitted its national report on time, he said. With regard to the idea of setting up a commission of inquiry in Myanmar, he stated that it was totally unacceptable and that there were no grounds whatsoever for the international community to conduct any kind of inquiry. Since 1989, the Myanmar Government, with a view to enabling prisoners to contribute to nation building, had granted amnesties on 15 occasions to a total of 115,000 prisoners who had shown good conduct.
Concerning the revision of domestic laws, according to article 446 of the State Constitution, “existing laws shall remain in operation in so far as they are not contrary to the Constitution and until and unless they are repealed or amended by the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (Union Parliament),” he said, noting that the ministries concerned were currently reviewing 342 existing domestic laws, including the 11 singled out for attention by the Special Rapporteur. He concluded by saying that his delegation would continue to cooperate with the Human Rights Council, the United Nations and the international community.
Question and Answer
Questions and comments were then made by representatives of a number of countries. Twice, the representative of Myanmar interrupted to ask the Chair to request that his country be referred to by its official name.
The Special Rapporteur said he understood that Myanmar was unable to accept some points in his report, including the question of justice and accountability for all parties that had been involved in abuses, including State and non-State actors. The question of accountability was critical and it had to be addressed from the outset of the transition to democracy. The passage of time would not assure success. It was clearly stated in the report that there were serious limitations to ensuring that the forthcoming elections would be authentic and credible. The prisoners of conscience whom the Special Rapporteur had interviewed had convinced him that they had a legitimate role to play in elections. No changes had been made by the Government regarding constraints on freedom of expression or expressing ideas about the future of the country. Freedom of association was also constrained. It was uncertain whether the elections would lead to any improvement in the human rights situation.
Since the appointment of the previous Special Rapporteur in 2002, the General Assembly had heard many reports on grave abuses of human rights in Myanmar, he said. It was up to the Government of Myanmar to decide whether it was going to ensure justice and accountability, because to do so was the responsibility of States, but the international community also had an obligation, if it had the political will to act.
Regarding a commission of inquiry, it was a proposal that the Special Rapporteur had put on the table as one possible form of tackling the problem of justice and accountability. The General Assembly should seriously and broadly analyse the proposal, which was the product of his two and a half years as mandate-holder and many consultations both inside and outside Myanmar. “I have not seen that the Government is seriously setting up mechanism to address these issues of human rights,” he stated.
As to the involvement of the United Nations in such a commission of inquiry, he said the office of the Secretary-General had had broad experience in dealing with grave abuses of human rights, and the Human Rights Council in Geneva could also be involved. The proposed commission of inquiry was not intended in a critical spirit or to punish Myanmar. The Government had indicated that it had some internal mechanisms to investigate abuses, but it stated that there were no abuses and therefore nothing had been done. “If something is not done promptly along these lines, the democratic process is endangered,” he said. Previous reports had identified four elements of particular concern: application of the law; real judicial independence; the freeing of prisoners of conscience; starting with those who are ill or elderly; and the need to address the work of the armed forces, particularly in frontier regions where there was armed conflict and international humanitarian law was being violated. It was hoped that the new authorities in Myanmar would restore cooperation with the Special Rapporteur and make it possible for him to visit next year. The General Assembly had a crucial role to play to guarantee in best manner possible the enjoyment of human rights by people of Myanmar. “This is a historic opportunity unlikely to happen again any time soon,” he said.
Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestinian Territories
RICHARD FALK, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, presenting his last report to the General Assembly in this term, described some of the difficulties that had faced the mandate-holder in discharging the functions of the position. The most salient of those difficulties involved the non-cooperation of the Government of Israel, which had refused to fulfil its obligations as a Member of the United Nations by its failure to allow the Special Rapporteur to enter Israel to visit the occupied territories of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. That Israeli procedure of non-cooperation was extended to other United Nations undertakings, including the “Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict” known as the Goldstone Report and the fact finding panel appointed by the Human Rights Council to investigate the flotilla incident of 31 May 2010.
The United Nations must also be faulted for its failure to respond more strongly to complaints of Israeli non-cooperation, setting an unfortunate precedent and encouraging impressions of Israeli impunity, he said. This mandate had also been hampered to some extent by the Human Rights Council, which never acted upon the proposal in his initial report that the mandate be reformulated to allow for the consideration of Palestinian, as well as Israeli, violations of international law, taking account of criticisms of an impression of bias. Additionally, while the Palestinian Authority had supplied helpful information, he had felt considerable pressure from it regarding his independence as Special Rapporteur, particularly with respect to reporting on the situation within Gaza.
The report itself, he said, focused on several developments pertaining to occupation, pointing out that, due to the issues associated with the blockade of Gaza, there had been a tendency to overlook Israeli encroachments on the rights of the Palestinian people in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. It stated that the cumulative effects of the settlements, the security wall and the extensive settler-only road network had been to convert the conditions of de jure “occupation” into circumstances of de facto “annexation”. The extension of the Jewish presence in East Jerusalem by way of unlawful settlements, house demolitions and revocations of Palestinian residence rights made it difficult to envisage a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. “If the conditions on the West Bank and East Jerusalem are substantially irreversible for political and practical reasons, it becomes misleading and diversionary to continue adherence to the ‘two-state consensus’,” he said, discussing the assertion that the Israeli occupation had features of “settler colonialism” and “apartheid features” based on dual and discriminatory legal structures and restrictions.
Furthermore, concerning assumptions that material conditions in the West Bank were acceptable, he said that the actual living realities of people there were not sufficiently noticed and, according to Save the Children UK, human necessities like food and water had reached a “crisis point” in an area totally under Israeli military administration. Another important issue concerned the surge of settler violence directed against Palestinians, including attacks on mosques and burning of olive trees.
The situation in Gaza remained disturbing from the perspective of human rights and international law, despite the welcome partial-easing of the comprehensive blockade in the aftermath of the 31 May attack on the six-ship flotilla carrying humanitarian assistance, he said. According to the latest information, the entry of basic necessities to Gaza remained at one third the level that existed prior to when the blockade was established in June 2007. He called the blockade “a form of collective punishment”, adding that the fact-finding mission report also found that the attacks on the flotilla in international waters were contrary to international law and reliant on excessive force.
He concluded by calling attention to two of the recommendations in his report that arose from the legal analysis of the occupation. “In particular, it is time, after 43 years, to acknowledge the intolerable burdens of ‘prolonged occupation’ on a civilian population,” he said, urging a formal study of the human rights aspects of prolonged occupation under either the auspices of the Human Rights Council or another respected organization. The other recommendation was to encourage United Nations support for both the effort to send humanitarian assistance direct to the people of Gaza in defiance of the unlawful blockade, and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Campaign, which sought to respond to Israel’s failure to uphold its international law obligations.
Question and Answer
The Special Rapporteur then took comments and questions from a number of representatives. They included the Observer of Palestine, who said there was no sign that Israel was ceasing its violation of human rights in the occupied territories, and that a “culture of impunity” existed because the international community had failed to act. She asked the Special Rapporteur to share his views on how the international community, including the United Nations, could ensure that 43 years of violations could be brought to an end and Israel held accountable.
The representative of Israel also spoke, saying that the report of the Special Rapporteur had been based on a one-sided and imbalanced mandate that did not conform to reality, prejudged key issues, contained errors of omissions and distortions of fact and law, and advanced a one-sided political agenda. Israel was committed to complying with the core human rights instruments that it had ratified, but it could not cooperate with a Rapporteur whose mandate was inherently biased and unbalanced.
In response, the Special Rapporteur said he wished he had time to respond adequately to all that had been said, and welcomed the support that several representatives had expressed for the efforts of a mandate “beset by a variety of difficulties” not confronted by other mandates.
The central issue confronting the General Assembly, and well expressed by the Syrian ambassador, was the degree to which responsibility would be taken for the realities of the situation in the occupied territories, he said. When would the United Nations regard its own Charter, international criminal law and human rights law as significant enough to merit the political courage to act upon them? The suffering of the Palestinian people persists, and had persisted ever since 1945 in one way, but certainly since occupation in 1967. It had never been conceived that occupation would be more than a temporary reality. Children living their entire lives under an oppressive occupation regime was something not experienced in modern times. If the United Nations was to live up the values embedded in its Charter, it must act. It must not be a passive spectator to the continuing abused of human rights. As the delegate of the Palestinian Authority said, one of the challenges was putting into reality the recommendations of the very independent flotilla and Goldstone reports. It would be a test of the credibility of the United Nations for it to take its own reports seriously enough to do something about them. Unless States took their findings seriously, how can one expect the United Nations to be respected as a conflict-resolving and problem-solving mechanism?
“I have been accused of being one-sided, but the reality is one-sided and that is the essential insight,” he said. He would welcome an opportunity for a debate about the substance of his report, the accuracy of which was beyond serious question. So stark was the situation that it was not a matter of reasonable controversy. It was disappointing that the United States did not recognize that what was happening in the occupied territories could not be reconciled with international law. The United States had been critical of the expansion of settlements, but settlement in itself was unlawful under the Geneva Conventions. It seemed important and central that the United Nations show the will to act on its own reports in addressing “this great symbolic and substantive struggle”.
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