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GA/SHC/4108
22 October 2014
Sixty-ninth session, 23rd & 24th Meetings (AM & PM)

Human Rights Chief Tells Third Committee ‘Toxic Tide’ of Discrimination, Xenophobia Undermines Equality, Fuels Conflicts, Ebola Outbreak

Rapid response to and prevention of human rights violations had the power to stop crises, from the Ebola outbreak to bloodshed in conflict hot spots around the world, the United Nations top human rights official told the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) today, as it continued discussions on the protection and promotion of human rights, hearing from experts and almost 60 delegates participating in interactive debates on a range of issues, from the death penalty to water and sanitation.

Addressing the Committee for the first time as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein presented his annual report covering the period from August 2013 to July 2014 and provided highlights of a tumultuous year on multiple fronts.  The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) was currently under pressure stemming from situations that included the relentless slaughter in Syria and its spillover effects, a new wave of barbarity in Iraq, the deplorable conflict in Ukraine and bloodshed in South Sudan.

“A toxic tide of discrimination and xenophobia has undermined the dignity, equality and rights of people in numerous States,” he told delegates.  “When human rights go wrong, the cost in bloodshed, in wrecked economies and humanitarian aid is titanic.”

Underlining a need for a strong, resilient and relevant United Nations human rights office, he said the Office was concerned about rising inequality and the political, economic and social exclusion of marginalized groups as root causes of the unrest and conflict across the globe.  All human rights must be at the core of all United Nations work, and must strengthen the Organization’s prevention and response efforts to violations.  In that regard, early and coordinated action across the full spectrum of human rights would achieve the goal of prevention more effectively.

It was also vital to integrate human rights into the response to Ebola and climate change, he stressed, pointing out that the failure of duty bearers, including States, to address people’s rights to basic goods and services, and also access to timely information, had fuelled the Ebola epidemic.

The Office had seen multiple examples of Member States and their proxies directing personal attacks against special procedures mandate holders, members of commissions of inquiry and human rights officers and officials who reported shortcomings and gaps in human rights protection.  In that regard, he urged all States concerned to cooperate with efforts to bring stability and justice to their countries.

Providing an overview of his Office’s activities, he said staff had demonstrated outstanding dedication during the period covered by the report, supporting 68 human rights field presences, comprising 13 stand-alone country offices, 12 regional offices, components in 14 United Nations peace missions and 29 human rights advisers.  Among interventions, OHCHR personnel had been the first United Nations staff to arrive in conflict areas in Ukraine, Mali and Kyrgyzstan, as well as remote areas in the Central African Republic following conflicts.

During the ensuing debate, Mr. Al Hussein thanked Member States for their words of support, telling them that despite progress, there were a number of gaps that needed to be bridged.  Taking up questions raised during the morning-long interactive dialogue in which more than 25 delegates participated, he responded to a range of issues, including attacks on human rights defenders, OHCHR funding challenges, States’ responsibilities to promote and protect human rights, and how the United Nations could best deal with the reported atrocities and “poisonous ideology” of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant/Sham (ISIL/ISIS).

A representative of Iraq said that it was no secret that ISIL had committed horrendous crimes in areas under its control.  Regarding a proposal to send a mission to Iraq to investigate those crimes, he said his delegation hoped that the mission would fulfil its aims within its mandate.

Syria’s delegate said that the High Commissioner had inherited “a burden of errors and personal grudges” from his predecessor.  The Office must conduct its work with respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, she said, calling on Mr. Al Hussein to intervene with Governments that were sheltering and financing armed terrorist groups, and to take tangible measures “to limit the calls for jihad launched by provocateurs wearing the outfit of religious men in Gulf countries”. 

Addressing a volley of questions on ISIL posed by other delegates, Mr. Al Hussein said the Office was planning forthcoming measures, as parts of Iraq and Syria were under the control of that non-state actor.  Despite security constraints, the human rights component mission in Iraq was strengthening the standards in the country.  However, in Syria, he continued, the Office had not been granted entry to the country, where there were reports of sectarian and gender-based violence.

Several speakers asked for advice or assistance in facing human rights challenges in their countries and regions.  Weighing in on working with national human rights institutions, a representative of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) said misperceptions and misconceptions abounded, inside and outside the OIC, calling on the OHCHR for support.

Other speakers asked for the High Commissioner to weigh in on current pressing challenges.  Among many speakers who asked questions pertaining to situations in their countries, a representative of the State of Palestine asked how the Commissioner planned to deal with Israel’s non-cooperation with various United Nations human rights entities, such as Special Rapporteurs and fact-finding missions including the one on Gaza, and what steps could be taken to end Israel’s repeated violations of the United Nations Charter.

On that issue, he urged all Member States to cooperate, to focus “more on the issues and less on the persons”.  Otherwise, he stressed, the international human rights system was at jeopardy.

A delegate from Eritrea said the establishment of a commission of inquiry in relation to his country was a politically motivated exercise by the Human Rights Council.  “The constant creation of rapporteurs and inquiry commissions must stop,” he said, asking the Commissioner how much it had cost.  A representative of Belarus said her Government was concerned that OHCHR working methods had decreased the prestige of the body, and that her country did not recognize the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Belarus and would not cooperate.

In response, he said the Office must strictly follow the mandate established by United Nations Member States.  Noting that every State followed the instructions given by their governments in the intergovernmental meetings, his office looked for a space to find an agreement.

Responding to general questions on State sovereignty, he said all Member States needed to respect international humanitarian law, while refraining from targeting minorities.  He also called upon all delegations to cooperate with the Office’s commissions of inquiry.  On more specific questions about the issue of attacks against human rights defenders and civil society organizations, Mr. Al Hussein said that many had risked their lives and the enjoyment of their freedom in the country they served.  There was, indeed, a need for change, he said.

Answering questions about OHCHR policies, he said OHCHR had provided technical assistance to numerous countries on a very wide range of issues, including discrimination, the rule of law, and ending impunity, as well as on efforts to improve international human rights mechanisms.  Addressing another question, he said the Office was quite firm on the moratorium of death penalty, as no judiciary was mistake-free.

On the questions related to the dire financial situation of the OHCHR, he said that even though human rights was one of the three pillars of the United Nations system, it had been allocated 87 per cent less than allocations to the peace and security pillar, and 84 per cent less than the development allocation.  With the budgetary limit, the Office looked intensively to prioritize their mandates, based on urgency.

The extensive work of the Office was achieved, despite funding shortfalls that burdened the Office with significant capacity deficits.  The Office also needed a number of things, including a user-friendly website.  It was also downsizing and cutting back the activities, as it had not received sufficient regular budget funding to fully pursue its mandate, resulting in delays in solving problems.  The Office hoped to work not only with the Member States, but also with public to generate a strong support.

During its afternoon meeting, the Committee held another interactive dialogue with an introductory statement by Ivan Šimonović, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, and presentations by : Emmanuel Decaux, Chair of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances; Ariel Dulitzky, Chair of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances; Christof Heyns, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; and Catarina de Albuquerque, Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation.

Introducing several reports by the Secretary-General, Mr. Šimonović provided an overview of economic, social and cultural rights challenges, including those facing migrants, children and adolescents.  Referring to a clutch of reports, he said the right to development should be central to the post-2015 development agenda.  He also said globalization must uphold the dignity of livelihoods and labour, including in transnational business, and of migrant workers and small-scale farmers, who sustained the globalized economy, but often remained on the margins of global value chains.

He also introduced a report of the Secretary-General on the situation of human rights in Iran, which called on the Government to introduce a moratorium on the use of the death penalty and to prohibit executions of juvenile offenders, as well as to create space for human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists, to release political prisoners and to establish an independent national human rights institution.

Mr. Decaux said even though the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance now had 43 States parties, the phenomenon was far from disappearing.  His Committee had already engaged in dialogues with six States parties since it was set up.  During the Committee’s seventh session, it had adopted a list of items to tackle regarding Armenia, Mexico and Serbia.  Concluding, he called on all Member States to ratify the Convention, as it provided a safety net against enforced disappearances and on all States parties to fulfil their obligations and submit their reports.  Further, he appealed to all States parties to respond effectively to the new international habeas corpus procedure, to find a disappeared person in the best possible timeframe.

Mr. Dulitzky began his presentation by discussing a new procedure being used to evaluate potential forced disappearances that had been adopted to express concern over disappearances taking place in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Syria.  Asking the Security Council to bring that issue to the International Criminal Court, he also made an appeal to identify new strategies to improve the search for disappeared persons, of which there were more than 43,000 ongoing cases.  Sustainable, integrated, and coordinated efforts by all stakeholders were needed, he said, calling on all States to honour their responsibilities.  Turning to the victims, he said efforts should focus on them, and that they should have a central role in designing public policies on forced disappearances.  In Argentina, the finding of activist Estela de Carlotto’s grandson after 36 years showed the kind of results that could be achieved when families of the disappeared, and the organizations that represented them, were fully supported by the State, he said.  Turning to the issue of threats and intimidation of family members, he urged all Member States to prevent and punish perpetrators.  He then said that forced disappearance was a form of terrorism, asking for an increase in accountability to shed light on that issue. Lastly, he called for the inclusion of a gender perspective in all strategies dealing with forced disappearances.

Mr. Heyns said regional systems, unmanned weapons systems and the resumption of executions were among his main concerns.  Regional human rights systems were an important but underutilized part of the global protection of the right to life, he said, highlighting some examples, including that the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights had addressed the right to life through resolutions, considerations of state reports and case law, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights had been developing a thematic study.  On the use of unmanned weapons, he said the High Commissioner for Human Rights should convene an expert group to examine the application of the international human rights framework to remotely-controlled weapon systems in the context of both law enforcement and private security.  On the death penalty, he noted the resumption of executions over the last two years, with 10 countries using that practice, ran counter to the international trend of reducing executions.  Human rights were about “more than just counting bodies”, he said, noting that without reliable statistics, it would not be possible to ensure sensible policies.  “Accounting for life” — both in the sense of keeping count of life and death and in the sense of accountability — was a central part of a State’s responsibility.

Ms. de Albuquerque presented her annual report, which focused on the right to participation in water and sanitation sectors.  Underlining that people had a right to take part in decision-making processes that might affect their lives, she said States had an obligation to involve people from the beginning, and to provide people with the necessary information to form an opinion.  Ensuring active, free and meaningful participation was not without difficulties, she said, noting that the biggest challenge was making sure that “everyone could realize his/her right to equal participation”.  That included addressing barriers facing marginalized individuals and groups.  Participation was a human right in itself, she said, calling on Member States to take measures to institutionalize inclusion in their work towards the realization of the human rights to water and sanitation.

During the ensuing interactive dialogue, two dozen delegates raised points about situations in their countries, and asked a range of questions.

Mr. Šimonović said, responding to a question from a representative of Belarus on the methodology for preparing country reports, that all delegations were welcomed to his office to be informed about it.  To a comment made by a representative of Cuba, who was speaking on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, he thanked for his recognition of the importance of the universal peer review mechanism.  Turning to the issue of death penalty, he said that a book on arguments against that practice had been recently published.

Mr. Decaux, responding to questions and comments from representatives of Switzerland, France, European Union, and Mexico, discussed different ways of strengthening the treaty bodies and the cooperation between them.  He said that he was fully in favour of a transparent platform for treaty bodies, as well as academics and NGOs to engage in dialogue.  Reprisals were a big concern for his Committee, and it was a good idea to have a focal point, perhaps within OHCHR, to deal with that matter, as well as with attacks against those who cooperated with different treaty bodies.  As for aligning the Convention with domestic laws, while the Committee could not dictate laws to States parties, it could organize workshops on how to incorporate the instrument within the parameters of a given legal system.

Mr. Dulitzky said he fully shared an appeal made by representatives of Chile and Argentina with regards to the ratification of the Convention, as it would enable the Committee to receive inter-state and individual communications.  Responding to a question from a speaker from the European Union Delegation on country visits, Mr. Dulitzky said that his annual report featured a list of countries that had received a request from the Working Group.  It was also considering the possibility of preparing the report without conducting a visit, or of finding some other way to establish a dialogue with those countries without visiting them.  After expressing appreciation for comments made by a representative of Croatia, who said recent events had shown that there was a desire for international cooperation, he appealed to all countries to cooperate with those who were looking for their citizens.

Turning to the issue of the working methods, raised by the delegate of the United States in relation to Crimea, Burundi and Rwanda, Mr. Dulitzky pointed out that the working methods and code of conduct of the Working Group established that communications remained confidential, saying that he would not make a statement on the countries mentioned by the United States.  However, in any situation, the Working Group used all tools available to it under its mandate.  In addition, it had the possibility in its working methods to contact both States involved, which was frequently done.  On justice and truth, he noted the need to redouble efforts.  Turning to girls and women, he said the obstacle women faced in trying to find their loved ones was not the same as men, inviting the Committee to read his report about that.

Mr. Heyns responded to questions on the death penalty raised by representatives of Singapore, Pakistan and Kuwait, who commented on his report’s references to their countries.  He said that “domestic law can never trump international law”, and progressive abolition of death penalty was a global trend, adding that military courts should never have the capacity to hand out death sentences.  Responding to questions from representatives of Switzerland, Norway, Russian Federation and Brazil, as well as the European Union, he said a code of conduct regarding the use of autonomous weapons should be in line with international human rights laws.  He also said regional human rights systems were vital and by exchanging notes and referring to each other’s jurisprudences, they were strengthening each other, as well as decreasing the burden on the United Nations.

Ms. de Albuquerque addressed a question from Switzerland’s delegate on best practices to promote the participation of minorities and vulnerable groups, saying that Brazil had created safe spaces for groups that had difficulties in making their voices heard.  That action had benefitted their participation in national decision-making processes.  To a comment made by Portugal’s delegate on how to address the issue of water in the post-2015 development agenda, she said concrete and targeted steps were being taken to progressively eliminate exclusion.  On corruption issues that were mentioned by Norway’s delegate, she applauded the efforts made by a Norwegian NGO in the United Republic of Tanzania to increase budget tracking to ensure that “public money is used to bring public goods”.

Responding to a representative of Kenya, she expected to receive a report of her visit in July 2014 soon.  Turning to the issue of economic advantages of participation raised by Germany’s delegate, she said that it was a human right, and that economic advantages were secondary.  Turning to potential challenges facing the international community in the post-2015 development agenda in terms of water and sanitation addressed by a representative of Spain, she identified retrogression and climate change, among others.  On the issue of stigma raised by a delegate from the European Union Delegation, she said menstrual hygiene management was a stigma and taboo in many countries.  However, she noted, in countries like Kenya and Bangladesh, a way to overcome that challenge was for the Governments to include both boys and girls in the discussions on it.  Turning to a question by Slovenia’s delegate regarding structural barriers to participation, she hailed the Government’s engagement of the Roma people.

During the interactive dialogue, a representative of Iran said all countries had a sovereign right to respond to reports on them, and urged that enough time be allotted for a statement to be delivered.  The representative of the Secretariat asked that a bilateral discussion be conducted on that issue.

The Committee will meet again at 10 a.m. Thursday, 23 October to continue its debate on human rights.

Background

The Third Committee met this morning to continue its consideration of the protection and promotion of human rights.  Before it were the following reports on human rights questions, including alternative approaches for improving the effective enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms: documents A/69/277, A/69/121, A/69/97, A/69/214, A/69/99, A/69/336, A/69/333, A/69/287, A/69/293, A/69/268, A/69/288, A/69/266, A/69/263, A/69/261, A/69/259, A/69/295, A/69/275, A/69/302, A/69/273, A/69/274, A/69/402, A/69/272, A/69/265, A/69/294, A/69/299, A/69/335, A/69/297, A/69/269, A/69/365, A/69/286, A/69/397, A/69/276, A/69/366 and A/69/267.

Included in the documentation were reports of the Secretary-General on the promotion and protection of human rights, including on: the status of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; the right to food and development; globalization; the safety of journalists; migrants; internally displaced persons; and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.  Also included was a note by the Secretary-General containing a report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the protection and promotion of the right to privacy in the context of domestic and extraterritorial surveillance and/or interception of digital communications and the collection of personal data, including on a mass scale.

Members also had before them documents A/69/362, A/69/306, A/69/301, A/69/398, A/69/356, A/69/307 and A/C.3/69/3, which included reports of special rapporteurs and representatives on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Iran, the occupied Palestinian territories and Belarus.  The Committee would also consider, upon issuance, a report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence (document A/69/518).

For information media. Not an official record.