Thursday, March 5, 2009

UN human rights chief says combating discrimination is a top priority

UN human rights chief says combating discrimination is a top priority

GENEVA – The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said Thursday that combating impunity, racism and all forms of discrimination against women, indigenous people, minorities, migrants and other vulnerable groups were top priorities for her office.

"I wish to underscore once again that discrimination is all too often at the root of other human rights abuses," Pillay said, as she introduced her wide-ranging annual report to the Geneva-based Human Rights Council.

In the report itself, she draws attention to the impact of the successive food, energy and financial crises, which was being felt "most particularly by those individuals and groups in society who were already marginalized and discriminated against."

The High Commissioner told the assembled government delegates that discrimination against women triggers violence which has "reached the proportions of a pandemic."

"Although at its most brutal in times of war, violence against women often stems from stereotypes, prejudices, and the lack of equality that had condoned such violence all along," she said. "Rendering justice to the victims is, therefore, not only a moral imperative, but also a legal obligation." It is important to focus on the promotion of all women's human rights, she added.

In her report, the High Commissioner listed major concerns about the impact the financial crisis would have on migrants: "A rise in xenophobia, anti-migrant sentiments and discriminatory practices is likely to affect the rights of migrant workers and members of their families," the report says. "Migrant workers will be, and already are, the first ones to lose their jobs."

"One worrisome trend being witnessed today," the High Commissioner's report continues, "is the increasing criminalization of irregular migration, with violations of migrants' rights during all phases of the migration process. This is linked in many countries to persistent anti-migrant sentiment, which is often reflected in policies and institutional frameworks designed to manage migratory flows... There are many criminal justice practices used by States… which have, in certain cases, resulted in increased violations against migrants." State policies "must incorporate a human rights-based approach, including protection against arbitrary detention," she said.

The report noted some important advances in the international effort to support the rights of indigenous peoples, but added that it was 'crucial' that states incorporate the recently agreed UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into their national legal and institutional systems.

As she summarized the sections of the report focused on combating impunity and preventing genocide, the High Commissioner spoke of her experience as a judge on international courts: "As a trial judge and the President of the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, I came to know first-hand how the fire of hatred can be stoked to ignite genocide," she said. "International justice has come a long way in punishing this heinous crime. We need, however, to better understand how to prevent it from recurring." Pillay noted that her office, OHCHR, had recently convoked a seminar of world-renowned experts on the prevention of genocide, and said the results of their discussion would be published in the near future.

The outcome of another important expert seminar on the subject of freedom of expression and incitement to hatred is published as an addendum to the High Commissioner's report (A/HRC/10/31/Add.3).*

"More broadly, on the issue of prevention of serious crimes we insist on the need for combating impunity in order not only to punish, but also -- and crucially -- to deter human rights violations and violence," she said. "A climate of impunity emboldens perpetrators to strike, while affording no solace to the victims… When States are unwilling or unable to genuinely investigate and prosecute genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, international justice mechanisms must be engaged." For this reason, she said, "States should strengthen their cooperation with the International Criminal Court and respect its independence."

The High Commissioner commended states for the progress so far in the new Human Rights Council system known as the Universal Periodic Review, which began operating last April. So far, the human rights records of 64 States have been reviewed under this process. All 192 UN member States will pass through the UPR system once every four years.

In her introductory speech to the Council, Pillay noted that a number of the countries reviewed so far had "firmly pledged to strengthen implementation at the national level, as well as their cooperation with the special procedures. They also announced their intention to ratify human rights instruments to which they were not yet parties, accept optional procedures, as well as comply with outstanding reporting obligations."

She also suggested that when the performance of the UPR system is assessed at the end of the first cycle, it might be beneficial if the roles played by the Special Procedures (a wide range of independent UN experts and working groups with specific mandates) and the Treaty Bodies (the UN Committees which oversee implementation of specific international human rights treaties) were strengthened.

Pillay also suggested the Human Rights Council itself might consider broadening the ways in which it directs its attention to alleviating chronic human rights conditions, for example through informal tools, "such as presidential statements or declarations by the President, which would capture the 'sense of the Council' without the complicated and lengthy negotiations that resolutions entail."

* For a list of, and links to, all the reports – including a number of country-specific ones – presented during this session of the Human Rights Council, go to

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