21 October 2015
Seventieth Session, 21st & 22nd Meetings (AM & PM)

Human Rights-Based Approaches ‘Urgently’ Needed to Mitigate Global Crisis of Migration Governance, High Commissioner Tells Third Committee

More effective, human rights-based approaches were urgently needed to address the global crisis of migration governance, the top United Nations human rights official told the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) today, as it continued debating the issue in a series of interactive dialogues.

Crises would only be solved when States applied existing, binding human rights commitments to which they had agreed, said the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.  Drawing attention to the greatest human displacement since the Second World War, he stressed the need to ensure the right to life, security, health and education of all migrants, regardless of their status.

Better migration governance, protection of civil society and addressing inequalities through the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development could assist in solving the world’s multiple migration crises, he told the Committee.  He pointed to the Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights at International Borders, issued in 2015 by his Office, which details criteria for the rights-based governance of borders.  Synergy and coordination were important between international agencies dealing with migration.

The High Commissioner also underlined the importance of addressing the root causes of crises and re-establishing peace, justice and the rule of law in conflict‑affected countries, notably in the Middle East and North Africa.  Of equal relevance was ensuring the protection of human rights and greater inclusion of civil society, women, minorities, youth and independent press.

During the ensuing interactive dialogue, he answered a range of questions.  Responding to concerns relating to the independence and impartiality of his Office, the High Commissioner said the Office was responsible for reminding States of their human rights obligations, on the basis of information provided by third parties, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and individuals.  The nature of the mandate had made it unavoidable that the High Commissioner might occasionally make comments that were, at times, irritating to Member States, he said.

Responding to questions of resources, he regretted to say his Office was mostly relying on voluntary contributions, as the allocation of resources from the United Nations regular budget was insufficient to cover all the activities in its mandate.

The Committee today also held interactive dialogues with the Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Myanmar, the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, the Chair of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances and the Chair of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.

The Third Committee will resume its work at 10 a.m. on Thursday, 22 October, to continue its discussions on the promotion and protection of human rights.


The Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) met today to continue its debate on the promotion and protection of human rights.  For background, see Press Release GA/SHC/4139.

Interactive Dialogues

ZEID RA’AD AL HUSSEIN, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, presented his annual report covering the period from August 2014 to July 2015, and provided highlights of a tumultuous year on multiple fronts.  The turmoil and crises that the international community faced clearly demonstrated the disasters that might occur when human rights were neglected and ground down.  Crises would only be solved when States applied existing, binding human rights commitments to which they had agreed.  The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) had engaged at every level, to urge and assist States to promote and protect the principles of the United Nations: “the rights of every human that are the core of development and peace”.  The Office had also identified priority areas that required urgent action in every State, investigated abuses and called for accountability across a vast range of complex situations.  Further, it had assisted in numerous areas to build up States’ capacity to enhance the rights and well-being of their people. 

Among elements that could assist in solving the world’s multiple migration crises were better migration governance to nurturing civil society and addressing inequalities through the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  Drawing attention to the greatest human displacement since the Second World War, he stressed the need to ensure the right to life, security, health and education.  Echoing the Secretary-General’s statement, he said “there are not two kinds of people: ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ migrants,” and added “there are only members of our common human family who need protection, assistance and support.”  For its part, the Office staff had monitored ongoing human rights issues in Asia and the Pacific and had intervened to uphold the rights of migrants threatened with deportation in the Americas.

Turning to the escalation of insecurity in the Middle East and North Africa region, he said many States had responded by imposing counter-terrorism measures that fell short of international norms, with arbitrary arrests, detention, torture and ill treatment.  It was particularly vital that countries facing severe security concerns addressed those issues to preserve the dignity of the people.  Such challenges, he stressed, could be overcome with the participation of civil, society, women, minorities, youth and an independent press.  The 2030 Agenda, he continued, would save and improve millions of lives.  The Office contributed significant input to ensure that human rights had been integrated into the heart of the 2030 Agenda, with inclusion, more sustained prosperity and greater justice.  Implementation of the 2030 Agenda, to that end, must be monitored to ensure accountability to citizens, measuring progress at local, national, regional and global levels.

Providing an overview of his Office’s activities, he said the staff had continued to monitor and investigate human rights violations in many regions, often in dangerous and challenging conditions.  During the reporting period, the Office had deployed an investigation team to Cameroon, Iraq, Libya, Niger and Nigeria.  Also, in the past weeks, the Office had issued a historic report on reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka, following a comprehensive investigation into alleged serious violations of human rights during the armed conflict.  In addition, the Human Rights Council had requested OHCHR to prepare a report on human rights violations and abuses against Rohingya and other minorities in Myanmar.  In follow-up to the universal periodic review, the number of requests for OHCHR to provide field-based technical cooperation had expanded.

Delegates then raised questions and made comments on ways to strengthen the international human rights systems and the coordination between international institutions in ways to ensure better protection of the rights of migrants.  They also asked about peace, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence; combatting gender inequality and violence and discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity; and measures to address challenges faced by religious minorities all around the world, including combating religious hatred.  Speakers also posed questions about plans for further enhancing the right to development and the impact of new social media and the protection of freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly.  Comments were also made with regard to the allocation of resources to the Office of the High Commissioner, its mandate, independence, reorganization and complementarity with other United Nations human rights mechanisms, including the universal periodic review.

Responding to comments made on the issue of migration, Mr. AL HUSSEIN said the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, known as the 1951 Refugee Convention, needed to be continually implemented.  He underlined that migrants — whether under regular or irregular status — had rights that must be protected.  He then agreed that synergy and coordination were important between international agencies dealing with migration and stressed that the Migration Working Group was making efforts in that regard.  He encouraged all States to ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

With regard to rights to development, education and health, he regretted that deaths resulting from conflicts were more talked about than preventable deaths resulting from a lack of access to health services.  Moving on to the issue of guarantees of non-repetition, he referred to the examples of Sri Lanka and Colombia and underlined the importance of establishing dedicated mechanisms in post-conflict situations.

On the situation of minorities, including religious minorities, he said his Office had strengthened efforts to integrate a gender perspective throughout its work, as well as its cooperation with United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women) and national human rights institutions with regard to gender issues, including in post-conflict situations.  He underlined the importance of the involvement of civil society organizations in addressing those issues, including with regard to combating incitement to violence.

Continuing, he regretted to say that the strategies employed to counter extremism was affecting the role of civil society in many countries.  Restrictions to civil society fuelled extremism, he said, and a careful balance had to be found when States adopted legitimate measures to ensure their national security.  Turning to the issue of reprisals and intimidation against persons who had cooperated with the United Nations in the field of human rights, he agreed that more synergy between New York and Geneva was needed and called for an end to such practices.

On the mandate of his Office, he said that his staff never forced itself upon Member States when establishing field offices.  The nature of the mandate made it unavoidable that the High Commissioner could occasionally make comments that were, at times, irritable to Member States.  He encouraged States to accept that and cooperate with his Office in order to address challenges.

Noting that his Office was mostly relying on voluntary contributions, he reiterated a call to Member States for strengthened allocation of resources from the regular budget of the United Nations.

Following the High Commissioner’s response, delegates raised further questions and concerns about the cooperation between States and OHCHR, the 2030 Agenda and the implementation of the Human Rights Council resolution 24/24 on the cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights.  They also asked about the functional independence of the OHCHR and the mechanisms to prevent crimes against humanity.  Several speakers questioned the mandate of the Office and the Human Rights Council, asking about the monitoring and investigation of human rights violations, technical assistance in countries facing human rights challenges, the OHCHR’s plan of work to put pressure on States supporting terrorism and mechanisms to address migration and refugee crisis.

Responding to the second cluster of questions, Mr. AL HUSSEIN said the Office was responsible for reminding States of their human rights obligations.  The Office was guided by the information provided by third parties, non‑governmental organizations (NGOs) and individuals.  On resolution 24/24, he stressed that the Office needed to have full access to information so that the human rights mechanisms worked properly.

In terms of voluntary contributions, he said funding was both stable and unstable considering that the yearly budget might not be enough to cover the OHCHR staff’s hard work in dangerous and challenging conditions, particularly in Syria and Ukraine.  On questions about the Sustainable Development Goals, the Office had contributed significant input to ensure that human rights had been integrated at the heart of the Agenda.  With regards to the human rights situation in Yemen, the Office had been unable to verify all allegations of human rights violations in the country.  The recent resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council would ensure that technical assistance was provided to States.

Participating in the dialogue were representatives of Brazil, Morocco, Costa Rica, Colombia, Chile, Austria, Ireland, Iran, India, Mexico, Indonesia, Switzerland, China, Russian Federation, Latvia, United Kingdom, United States, Belarus, Liechtenstein, Norway, Spain, Cuba, Iraq, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Yemen, Libya, Sudan, Armenia, Sierra Leone, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Nigeria, Israel, Myanmar, Eritrea, as well as the European Union, State of Palestine and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

VIJAY NAMBIAR, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Myanmar, presented a report on the human rights situation in Myanmar, covering the period from August 2014 to August 2015, and informed the Committee on developments since then.  The report focused on three major themes — the democratization process and the upcoming election, the communal polarization in the country and the situation of human rights and peace talks between the Government and armed groups.

The current Government had shown steady, though sometimes tenuous, commitment to internationally recognized democratic values, norms and institutions.  It was a positive development that it had intensified bilateral relations and engagement with the international community over human rights issues.  Despite progress recorded on various fronts, the human rights landscape had shown several visible lacunae.  While a number of prisoners had been released, cases of arbitrary arrests and detention of peaceful protestors, activists and ordinary citizens continued to occur.  Furthermore, institutionalized discrimination against the minority Muslim community, the Rohingyas, continued to tarnish the country’s human rights image.

Turning to the upcoming elections, he said that, if conducted in a credible, inclusive and transparent manner, they would further bolster public confidence in the democratization process.  Around 500 international and 5,000 local observers and monitors were expected to be on the ground during the elections.  Serious challenges, however, remained to be addressed.  The denial of voting rights and disenfranchisement of minority ethnic and religious groups remained deeply problematic.  The scrutiny of candidates in some districts had reportedly lacked “due process” and the disqualification of candidates had disproportionately affected ethnic and religious minorities.  Furthermore, the rising influence of ultra-nationalist elements, the spread of anti-Muslim fear mongering, and hate speech around the country were extremely worrying.

On the issue of national reconciliation, Mr. NAMBIAR said the Government had actively pursued peace talks with the 16 major armed groups.  Both sides had publicly evinced a desire for dialogue to address longstanding issues of power and resource sharing.  As the country was moving ahead in the peace process, both signatory and non-signatory groups would need to maintain a constructive and forward-looking spirit.  Like other similar peace processes, time and perseverance would be key to ensuring that the strong foundations for an inclusive and lasting peace were put in place.  It was obvious, however, that the existing tension in Kachin and Shan states needed to be eased and new armed confrontations must be avoided at all costs.

The representative of Myanmar said that, despite his country’s steadfast opposition against country-specific mandates, the Government had extended its cooperation to the good offices of the Secretary-General over two decades.  The current report had focused more on challenges than on progress made over the past years.  Due to the President’s efforts, Myanmar was under an “all-inclusive democratic system with an active and viable parliament” that enjoyed greater political and media freedom.  Given those changes, it was unjustifiable to argue that there were signs of backtracking on reform.  Indeed, over the past years, public gatherings and peaceful protests had been permitted on a daily basis and just a few cases of arrests had occurred due to violations of certain laws.  “Myanmar has reached a point of no return,” he said.  “We are moving forward.”

Providing several examples, he pointed to the historic signing, on 15 October, of a nationwide ceasefire agreement between the Government and eight armed groups.  That would open the way to political dialogue and bring an end to the six-decade-long conflict, he said, calling it “the fruit” of years-long negotiations.  With regard to allegations of disenfranchisement, he said “white cards” were issued to residents who had yet to undergo citizenship verification.

Continuing, he said the report had dwelled on Rakhine state, overshadowing the reforms in Myanmar.  Despite fully sharing the concerns of the international community, he objected the use of “institutionalized discrimination”.  Further, he said the communal violence had affected both Muslim and Rakhine Buddhist communities, and there had been no recurrence of such violence since 2012.  He said that Myanmar was moving forward on its path to democratic transition, confronting numerous challenges with its limited capacity and resources.  Accordingly, no one should place unrealistic expectations on his country to become a flawless democracy within a few years.

Representatives of other Member States then put questions to the Special Adviser on topics that included the situation of the Rohingya people, the ways in which the United Nations would engage with the Government after the elections, communal polarization and the implementation of the nationwide ceasefire.

Responding to the statement made by Myanmar’s delegate, Mr. NAMBIAR said he had to look at both achievements and challenges.  While there had been “tremendous progress”, there were still challenges as well as opportunities that had not been used as effectively as they could have.  For the United Nations to draw attention to such challenges was important.

On the forthcoming elections, he said that, while the Government had encouraged the international community to be present, the country had “national ownership” of the process, which would be conducted in accordance with Myanmar’s laws, regulations and Constitution.  With regards to disenfranchisement, some members of the Rohingya community that had been previously elected were now not being allowed to contest the election.

While there had been no recurrence of violence in Rakhine, little improvement had been seen in camps for internally displaced persons, with conditions becoming increasingly more desperate, prompting some to consider fleeing.  Only through a national effort at the local level could a solution be found.  Demonizing one community or another would not help.  For that reason, national leaders were being asked to speak out against hate speech.

Moving on to other questions on the role of the United Nations after the election, he noted that a modest training programme and consultations with the Union Election Commission would continue.  While the United Nations was not involved in election monitoring, there was a number of institutions participating in that work, including the European Union and the Carter Center.  There would probably be one observer for every three polling stations and the Union Election Commission indicated that violence would be avoided and voting would take place in a transparent manner.

With regard to the disenfranchisement based on the elimination of “white cards”, there was very little the international community could do.  It would be presumptive for the United Nations to seek a role for itself after the election, but it would watch developments carefully and keep in touch with stakeholders.

Regarding the future of the Rohingya in Rakhine, it was expected that the Government, even a “caretaker” Government, would be held to account and deliver on its commitments, including finalizing the status of internally displaced persons.  The peace process would move only as fast as the partners were willing to take it forward.  The international community had a role to encourage all parties, especially the army, not to take actions that would heighten tensions.

Participating in the dialogue were delegates from the United Kingdom, Malaysia, Egypt (for the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation), as well as the European Union.

IVAN ŠIMONOVIĆ, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, then presented several reports, beginning with one on globalization and its impact on human rights.  That report stressed the need for trade and investment agreements to be negotiated with the involvement, consultation and consent of the general public.  The report on human rights and cultural diversity included measures to raise the standard of living of indigenous communities, while the report on the right to development focused on the 2030 Agenda.

On the report on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, he said there were concerns across the United Nations system with the types of domestic counter-terrorism legislation that had been enacted by Member States.  He provided updates found in the report on the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity.

Turning to the report on the human rights of migrants, he said it discussed a number of challenges, such as xenophobia, gender-based abuses and restrictions on freedom of movement.  It also set out examples of best practices with regard to the protection and promotion of the human rights of migrant domestic workers.

The report on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea noted Security Council discussions on that issue and contained updated information on the impact of economic sanctions on United Nations assistance.  A similar report concerning Iran focused on the death penalty; limitations on freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly; the arrest and harassment of media professionals, human rights defenders and lawyers; women’s rights and the rights of minorities.  It also welcomed the agreement between the Government and its international partners on Iran’s nuclear programme, which would pave the way to the lifting of economic sanctions.

In the ensuing dialogue, a representative of Iran said the report of the Secretary-General had a number of major drawbacks.  It had failed to consider the substantiated comments and replies of the Government and it had extensively relied on sources that were mostly unknown and unreliable.  With regards to his country’s cooperation with international human rights mechanisms, he noted that the Secretary-General had welcomed his country’s engagement with the United Nations human rights treaty bodies and the universal periodic review mechanism.

EMMANUEL DECAUX, Chairperson of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances, noted the “very significant manner” in which the number of States parties to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance had grown.  It now stood at 51, five years after it had come into force.  Such an increase had put new responsibilities on the Committee with regard to the examination of reports.  While the parameters of General Assembly resolution 68/268 were being applied in full, greater human resources were required.

The number of urgent actions registered by the Committee had grown to a total of 253, with the great majority of those cases concerning Mexico and another 40 or so involving Iraq.  There was no hiding the Committee’s preoccupation with the situation in Mexico.  The Government had to take all necessary measures to protect migrants as well as its own population and to investigate all cases in order to respect its international obligations.  In addition to legislative reforms, it was essential to cast light on all disappearances in order to guarantee the right to truth and justice and to combat impunity.

The June 2015 meeting in Costa Rica of chairs of human rights treaty bodies had marked a decisive step with regard to synergy between those 10 bodies.  The San José guidelines regarding intimidation and reprisals were but a first step towards more effectively fulfilling the primary mission of protection for victims.  Such coordination between treaty bodies and cooperation with all stakeholders with respect to obligations and responsibilities was promising, he said.

In the ensuing dialogue, the representative of Mexico outlined steps that had recently been undertaken by the Government with regard to enforced disappearances, including the adoption of a protocol on ministerial and police investigations.  A specialized prosecutor’s officer had been established and efforts were being made to identify locations of disappeared persons.  With regard to the 43 students who disappeared in Guerrero state, a panel of independent experts, set up by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, had reported its findings on 6 September.  As directed by the President, its work was being followed up at the highest level.

Several delegates welcomed the cooperation between the Committee and the working group and asked about measures to increase the number of ratifications of the Convention.  Among others, delegates also raised questions and concerns about reprisals against victims, awareness-raising on universal ratification and the impact of budgetary restrictions on the work of the Committee.

Mr. DECAUX said it was encouraging to see the increasing number of ratifications, yet more needed to be done to raise awareness.  To that end, the tenth anniversary of the Convention would be a good opportunity to explain the role of the Working Group and the context of the Convention.  Further, he said, relevant meetings and seminars could be organized at the regional and international level.

Participating in the dialogue were representatives of Morocco, Argentina, France, Japan, Armenia and Colombia, as well as the European Union.

BERNARD DUHAIME, Vice-Chair of the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, said 2015 marked its thirty-fifth anniversary of helping victims in their quest for truth, justice and reparations.  Much had been achieved; however, it was still too little vis-à-vis the suffering of the relatives who were still searching for their loved ones.  To date, the group had been able to clarify only 65 cases of enforced disappearance, with 43,000 cases remaining unclarified.  Cases remained outstanding for a number of reasons, including the lack of sufficient State willingness, capacity and efforts to establish the fate of the disappeared.  To that end, he encouraged all States to strengthen efforts to put the search for the disappeared at the top of their political agenda, taking into account the sufferings of the families.

Country visits had allowed the group to carry out a proper assessment of the prevalence of enforced disappearances globally and to formulate recommendations.  Since its creation, it had conducted 28 country visits: 7 to Europe, 11 to Latin America, 7 to Asia and 3 to Africa.  Through its thematic studies, the group had sought to contribute to ongoing discussions of certain areas of specific interests.  The report had covered enforced disappearances and economic, social and cultural rights, he said, noting that the next one would focus on the issue of migration.

Representatives from a number of countries then asked about migrants, the provision of human resources, disappearances perpetrated by non-State actors and the situation in Crimea.

Mr. DUHAIME acknowledged the work done by many relatives, associations of relatives, human rights defenders and NGOs to eradicate enforced disappearances and assist them in their plight for truth and justice.  The group, however, remained concerned about the patterns of threats, intimidation and reprisals against victims of enforced disappearance, including family members, witnesses and human rights defenders working on such cases.

He said the disappearances in Crimea were concerning.  To find out what happened to the disappeared, the working group would continue to communicate with all relevant actors.

Turning to funding matters, he was grateful to the General Assembly, as it had adjusted the budget, thereby enabling the working group to recruit more staff.

Participating in the interactive dialogue were representatives of Argentina, Morocco, France, United States and Mexico, as well as the European Union.

For information media. Not an official record.