Growing unilateralism — often fuelled by intolerance towards migrants as well as racial and ethnic minorities — impeded the realization of human rights, the senior-most United Nations human rights official told the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) today, as delegates discussed ways to improve the Organization’s ability to serve those most in need.
“Unilateral and restrictive measures by States to the entry of migrants and refugees have led to terrible and unnecessary suffering”, said Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, as he presented his annual report. That trend threatened to erode the fundamental principles upholding the international system, he warned.
Protection approaches must embrace human mobility, he said, reminding countries that the resilience, determination and resourcefulness of migrants were assets to every country. OHCHR had deepened its focus on those issues and was developing a set of principles and practical guidance on the human rights of migrants who were in vulnerable situations but did not receive refugee protection.
Another key concern for his Office was the “criminalization of dissent,” he said. Some States had used counterterrorism as a pretext to restrict public freedoms, such as freedom of speech, association and peaceful assembly. In some cases, security measures targeted human rights defenders, civil society organizations and journalists. Those rights violations threatened to fuel violent extremism, rather than keeping it in check. “Widening the democratic space in every region remains an urgent priority for my Office”, he said.
He said that his concern for the freedom of civil society had been echoed by several States, the representatives of which, in the ensuing dialogue, addressed restrictions on civil society at the national and international levels. Civil society could be a great strength to Governments, but only if it enjoyed freedom of dissent, he said. If the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was to be realized, it would require civil societies that could hold their Governments to their commitments.
He said centripetal forces like climate change and the 2030 Agenda were working against centrifugal forces pulling Governments away from those goals. In the coming year there would be several pivotal elections that would determine where the Organization was positioned.
In the morning, the Committee concluded its general debate on the implementation of human rights instruments, including the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, adopted at the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights.
Participating in that debate were representatives of Colombia, Morocco, Botswana, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Algeria, as well as the International Labour Organization (ILO).
The Third Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Thursday, 20 October, to continue its general discussion on the promotion 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/4172.
MIGUEL CAMILO RUIZ BLANCO (Colombia) said the Government’s commitment to ending its fifty-year conflict had shown the value it placed on human rights. Colombia had made normative advances and institutional adjustments to realize its peoples’ rights. Six hundred thousand victims of the armed conflict had received reparations, amounting to $3.3 billion, and the Government was investigating grave human rights violations. Colombia also had complied with its international legal obligations, and submitted three human rights reports in 2016. He expressed gratitude for the support of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and hope for continued assistance in establishing peace.
Ms. MORTAJI (Morocco) said the Government had joined the vast majority of international conventions to protect human rights and had undertaken structural reforms to enhance the protection of human rights and democracy. She went on to outline those measures, which included the adoption of the 2011 Constitution and its associated measures to protect human rights, criminalize violators and separate the powers of national institutions for the protection of human rights. The reform to the Family Code in 2004 had marked an important step for gender equality, she said, also citing a new national policy for migration and asylum.
EDGAR SISA (Botswana) said the Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery was a tool that extended humanitarian, legal and financial aid to victims of human trafficking and the sale of children. It was worrying that it was underfunded and Botswana supported initiatives to improve its financial situation, such as creating the Group of Friends of the Fund. On the report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, he commended efforts to integrate human rights with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the right to development, as well as the Office’s efforts to extend its work to civil society and the private sector.
HABIB MIKAYILLI (Azerbaijan) expressed concern about double standards, selective approaches and politicization, especially of the Human Rights Council. Reviewing Azerbaijan’s compliance with its obligations to that body and treaty bodies, he noted that it had submitted voluntary mid-term reports on the implementation of accepted recommendations under the Universal Periodic Review, and issued a standing invitation to special procedures mandate holders. Noting that the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment had visited Azerbaijan in 2015, he encouraged treaty bodies to step up efforts to harmonize their working methods.
AMIRBEK ZHEMENEY (Kazakhstan) said the Human Rights Council was a key United Nations human rights body, and commended the Universal Periodic Review, which upheld impartiality and non-selectivity. But he expressed concern about the increasing politicization of human rights mechanisms, noting that the Council had come to the “era of implementation” of its decisions and that monitoring of adopted decisions was critical. Describing details of Kazakhstan’s compliance with Council mechanisms, he said the country had completed its second Universal Periodic Review, and that ten special mandate holders had visited Kazakhstan.
NORA IMANE BELLOUT (Algeria) reiterated the Government’s commitment to the protection to human rights, democracy and the rule of law, and condemned all political and financial support to terrorist organizations and extremist groups. Recognizing the important role of legal frameworks in promoting human rights, she said the Government had passed a number of laws and Constitutional reforms. She welcomed the Council’s technical support to Members, and the peer review of the Universal Period Review system, in which Algeria had participated. She also emphasized the importance of communication with civil society when preparing human rights reports and implementing human rights treaties. Finally, she stressed the need to maintain the Council’s transparency, non-selectivity, and non-politicization.
KEVIN CASSIDY, International Labour Organization (ILO), said in the realm of human rights, ILO’s work primarily concerned freedom of association, discrimination, child labour and forced labour. Describing labour rights as “workers’ human rights”, he said a majority of workers around the world were not able to exercise their right to peaceful assembly and association in the workplace. Not only was that a rights violation, it was also hindering sustainable development. Research had shown that improving working conditions and allowing association of workers helped reduce poverty and increase resilience to conflict. Although widely ratified, human rights must be promoted and protected by all Member States.
ZEID RA’AD AL HUSSEIN, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, underscored the threat posed by the breakdown of global consensus on the fundamental principles of the international system. While recent multilateral commitments to end extreme poverty were promising, increasing intolerance towards migrants and racial and religious minorities, including in the wealthiest countries, posed a serious challenge to human rights work.
Presenting his annual report, which covered August 2015 to July 2016, he welcomed the Secretary General’s support through the Human Rights Up Front initiative, which had facilitated more effective system-wide responses to crises. In collaboration with the Department of Political Affairs, his Office had developed multidisciplinary “light teams” to rapidly deploy staff to situations of concern, such as Burkina Faso, Lesotho and Congo. Further, OHCHR had provided assistance to a number of Commissions of the Human Rights Council in Africa and the Middle East. It had deployed teams to monitor elections in Moldova, strengthen the OHCHR office in Palestine and monitor the situation of refugees and migrants in Bulgaria, Greece and Italy. Women’s rights were another priority for his Office, which had carried out specialized trainings for judicial personnel throughout several regions.
Strengthening rule of law institutions was another priority, he said, as they were essential to upholding rights. His Office had supported efforts to strengthen those institutions in 13 countries. It also had supported constitutional reform and transitional justice arrangements in a number of countries. The need to uphold human rights and the rule of law was particularly salient in situations where Governments were countering terrorism and violent extremism. He was concerned that counter-terrorism efforts were being used as an excuse to criminalize dissent — a practice that could instead fuel violent extremism. Reprisals against those cooperating with OHCHR and other human rights mechanisms were a persistent problem during the period under review.
Also during the reporting period, his Office had deepened its focus on the rights of migrants, who, he said, were particularly vulnerable to discrimination, exploitation, violence and prejudice. In collaboration with partners, OHCHR was developing a set of Principles and Practical Guidance on the human rights protection of migrants who were in vulnerable situations, but not eligible for refugee protection. Teams from his Office were monitoring their situation in several areas, as well as training the European Union Naval Force to counter smuggling networks in the Mediterranean. While the Global Compact on Safe Migration would enable a more rights-based and equitable response to migrant crises, unilateral and restrictive entry requirements by States had led to unnecessary suffering. His Office, working with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), would address common areas of concern: international human rights law, international refugee law, and international humanitarian law.
When the floor was opened, delegates made observations about OHCHR’s access to countries and crises, with some expressing concern about a lack of cooperation by Member States and asking what could be done to strengthen compliance with adopted mandates. Others voiced concern about restrictions imposed on civil society and their work at the national and international level, including at the United Nations.
Regarding the restructuring of the High Commissioner’s Office, speakers asked about the status of the “Change Initiative” and next steps, as well as commented on the need to maintain independence, impartiality, openness and transparency. Several delegations inquired about the workload of the Human Rights Council and how it could be made more efficient.
Still other speakers asked how country offices and human rights work within country teams could be strengthened. Other questions centred on how to promote the right to development, and efforts to address discrimination and racism, especially as those issues affected vulnerable and marginalized groups, and with a view to avoiding new conflicts and atrocities.
Mr. AL HUSSEIN started his response with basic observations. After two years in office and many field visits, he recognized a flaw in the design of the interaction with Member States: an honest exchange was missing in interactions with foreign ministry representatives, as their main role was to promote national interests. However, when he met with other specialized ministries, interactions were often very honest. Serious problems were acknowledged and constructive ways were sought how to address them.
On fostering civil society participation, he said that such participation appeared to be more welcome in Geneva, where discussions were more technical, whereas in New York, issues could become politicized more easily. He also expressed concern about reprisals and the exclusion of civil society actors, who often took great risks in making their voices heard. On the composition of OHCHR staff, he noted that diversity and representation was measured by individual country and that 125 nationalities were represented. Those statistics were tracked quite well, he added.
Regarding the denial of access to Special Procedures, he voiced concern about access for his Office to investigate human rights violations, asking Member States what they were hiding if access was broadly denied. He hoped that more access would be granted to assist in conflict areas. He encouraged Member States to extend standing invitations to Special Procedures and to reconsider positions which hindered cooperation.
To questions about the “Change Initiative”, he responded that the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) was about to release its report on that matter and that it would be presumptive for him to comment now. He listened carefully to comments made by Member States and had made adjustments accordingly. All comments had been well received.
On measures to prevent discrimination and violence, he said his Office was taking an action-oriented approach: reports on efforts made by States in that area had been prepared, and the Office had created a database for anti-discrimination measures and recommendations. He had observed a great deal of worry and fear among minorities, which his Office took seriously.
Much depended on funding and he continued appeal to States for more resources for his Office. Crisis response required the ability to deploy staff and have access to areas in need. When a Human Rights Council special session called for the creation of a commission of inquiry, he said, programme budget implications must be taken into account, which was problematic for emerging crises.
On questions about the Council’s effectiveness, he said there was pressure to reduce the number of panels, a matter that the Bureau was addressing. The great number of crises was reflected in the Council’s growing agenda. More broadly, he said the right to development must be honoured, with economic and social rights domesticated in national law and followed up. Development and human rights had to come together in order for stable societies to flourish and to avoid future atrocities.
Participating in the first round of questions and comments were representatives of the United States, China, Iran, Eritrea, Ireland, Colombia, Belarus, Brazil, Canada, Romania, Russian Federation, Indonesia, Japan, United Kingdom, Latvia, Libya, Qatar and Argentina, as well as the State of Palestine.
In the second round of questions, delegations asked about wide-ranging issues, such as the role of civil society, as well as specific country situations. The representative of Liechtenstein asked the High Commissioner to elaborate on different options for accountability regarding the situation in Syria. The representative of Mexico asked about the recent UNGASS special session of the General Assembly on the world drug problem and what work the High Commissioner’s
Office could undertake on that matter. Other delegates requested further information on his “Change Initiative”, which aimed to strengthen the Office’s presence in the field, with Norway’s representative calling for all States to support that programme in the Fifth Committee.
Before responding, Mr. AL HUSSEIN referred to earlier questions, noting that in regards to Japan’s inquiry, it was worth bearing in mind that the Human Rights Council mechanisms was universal and did not have a Focus on the Global South. Turning to the question regarding civil society, he pointed out that civil society functioned in a manner that could be of great support to governments, but only if they had the possibility of exercising their right to freedom of expression, and did not just agree with everything governments said. The 2030 Agenda required civil society to hold governments to their mark. Centripetal forces like climate change and the 2030 Agenda were working against centrifugal forces that tore governments away from those goals. In response to Liechtenstein’s points, he said he would be addressing the Special Session of the Human Rights Council on Syria.
Noting the number of questions regarding the “Change Initiative”, Mr. AL HUSSEIN said that there were six regional offices in the process of being strengthened, and a request for two more. Turning to the question on illicit drugs, he said his Office had organized a panel discussion on the impact of the world drug problem on human rights at the Human Rights Council’s thirtieth session, and had prepared an outcome document. In response to the question asked by Egypt, he said progressive development through debate was how the international community needed to continue its work on human rights law.
The work of the Office and of those who worked in the field was a reflection of deep commitment, he underscored. That work entailed working with victims of appalling crimes. But if, out of the back-and-forth world, societies were to develop greater respect for human rights, “it will all be worth it in the end.”
Also participating in the interactive discussion were representatives of Australia, Cameroon, Cuba, Iraq, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Egypt, Azerbaijan, Republic of Korea, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Algeria, Ghana (on behalf of the African Group), Sudan, Syria and Morocco, as well as the representative of the European Union.
Point of Order
In response to the request by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea to speak in exercise of the right to reply, the representative of the Secretariat said it was the long-standing practice of the Committee not to entertain rights of reply at interactive debates. If the Committee wanted to depart from established practice, it should be aware that such actions would have political consequences for future proceedings. He also noted that rights of reply were not absolute; they were at the discretion of the Chair.
The Chair then asked the representative of Democratic People's Republic of Korea to present his statement in the next meeting. She also requested that the delegates of Morocco and Algeria who requested clarifications on procedure wait until the next meeting as well.