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United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addresses Human Rights Council

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25 January 2011
Posted on UN Human Rights

Ban Ki-moon Says Special Procedures Allow Human Rights Council to Shine Light on Abuses Everywhere

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addressed the Human Rights Council this afternoon at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, saying that for the Council to fulfil its mandate it had to be seen as impartial and fair and it could not be seen as being ruled by special interests.

In his remarks, the Secretary-General said that over the past five years, the Universal Periodic Review had made important progress. It scrutinized all countries, big and small, poor and rich, weak and powerful. The delegations were high-level, the discussions were candid and the debates were difficult; just as they should be. The Universal Periodic Review was breaking new ground and now they had to make sure it did not become simply a rote exercise. That required the members of the Council and all the Member States to follow through on its recommendations. Facing human rights problems was the first step; acting to fix them moved them forward on the path of progress.

As they walked this road they needed to shine light on abuses everywhere; the Council’s system of Special Procedures made this possible, the Secretary-General said. These experts travelled the world, recorded what they saw, and reported to the Council. They were the Council’s eyes and ears and they must be able to see clearly and hear well and be free from hindrance. The Secretary-General welcomed the fact that this Council had convened more special sessions in five years than the Human Rights Commission held during its entire history. They did this with flexibility and creativity; victims shared their stories; fact-finding missions probed complex cases; and Council members responded to breaking developments. However, more must be done to fully rise above national and regional interests. If this Council was to deliver on the promise of its founding, it must go beyond narrow considerations.

The Secretary-General went on to say that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had been translated into more languages than any other document in the world. This was more than an historic record; it was the collective voice of the world’s people insisting that the Declaration applied everywhere, that no matter what language one spoke or where one lived they should be sheltered by its principles. And yet, though they had translated the Declaration into more than 300 languages, they had yet to fully translate its principles into action. This was their shared responsibility. The express mission of the Human Rights Council was to ensure that every single person could enjoy their human rights in full: all rights for all people.

In closing, Mr. Ban said that as they prepared to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration on the Right to Development, they needed to work to make this right a reality for all, in line with the Millennium Development Goals. They had to reject persecution of people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity who may be arrested, detained or executed for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Mr. Ban said that he understood that sexual orientation and gender identity raised sensitive cultural issues, but cultural practice could not justify any violation of human rights. The General Assembly founded this Council to promote universal respect for the human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction and in a fair and equal manner. The Assembly charged them, the members of this Council, with upholding the highest standards of human rights. Now they must act in a fair and equal manner and uphold the highest human rights standards, in their own countries and around the world.

Sihasak Phuangketkeow, President of the Human Rights Council, also addressed those gathered and noted that the presence of the Secretary-General underscored the high importance he attached to the human rights agenda of the United Nations. The last time the Secretary-General spoke to the Council, he challenged them on accountability in terms of human rights actions and reminded them of their responsibility to implement and uphold the highest standards of human rights. The members of the Council recognized the responsibility and expectations in terms of their mandate. The Council’s five year review was coming up and they would keep the Secretary-General’s words in mind as they conducted the review.

In statements made by the regional groups, speakers said that the Human Rights Council, and especially the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, had a crucial role to play in the worldwide protection and mainstreaming of human rights. The independence of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and its impartiality were preconditions for effective work on the ground. Since the founding of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, they had come a long way in correcting the flaws of the Human Rights Commission. They had made great strides in many areas including enforced disappearances, unlawful detentions and torture, and human rights education and training. The Universal Periodic Review was the main innovation and perhaps one of the main achievements of the Council. There remained much work to be done and five years after its establishment, the Human Rights Council was still struggling to fulfil its mandate, including in addressing situations of violations of human rights in emergency and chronic situations. The Council had failed to respond promptly to several serious situations and it had become more and more difficult for victims to effectively engage with the Council.

Speaking were representatives from Austria on behalf of the Western European and Other States Group, Costa Rica on behalf of the Group of Latin American and Caribbean Countries, Croatia on behalf of the Eastern European Group, Iraq on behalf of the Asian Group, Nigeria on behalf of the African Group, the International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights on behalf of national human rights institutions, and the Committee on Human Rights in Geneva on behalf of non-governmental organizations.

Statements

SIHASAK PHUANGKETKEOW, President of the Human Rights Council, said the presence of the Secretary-General underscored the high importance he attached to the human rights agenda of the United Nations. The last time the Secretary-General spoke to the Council, he challenged them on accountability in terms of human rights actions and reminded them of their responsibility to implement and uphold the highest standards of human rights. The members of the Council recognized the responsibility and expectations in terms of their mandate. The Council’s five year review was coming up and they would keep the Secretary-General’s words in mind as they conducted the review.

BAN KI-MOON, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said that he was honoured to address the Council today. Human rights were at the core of all they did. The General Assembly established this Council nearly five years ago to put human rights on a par with development and peace. Some worried this Council would become biased while others saw it as a great hope for solving every human rights challenge that confronted the world. Two years ago, Mr. Ban said he came here and issued a challenge, calling on the Council to promote human rights without favour, selectivity or any undue influence. He said these touchstones should guide their discussions in the upcoming five-year review.

The Council should examine its work not from the perspective of governments or experts, but through the eyes of people who needed its protection. They should ask whether this Council responded to mass rapes and sexual assaults committed with impunity, children conscripted in war, human rights defenders who spoke the truth only to suffer yet more oppression.

Mr. Ban told the Council Members they should preserve space for non-governmental organizations and they should carry out the review carefully and efficiently. The High Commissioner for Human Rights and her Office were their great allies in this effort.

Mr. Ban went on to say that over the past five years, the Universal Periodic Review had made important progress. It scrutinized all countries, big and small, poor and rich, weak and powerful. The delegations were high-level, the discussions were candid and the debates were difficult; just as they should be. The Universal Periodic Review was breaking new ground and now they had to make sure it did not become simply a rote exercise. That required the members of the Council and all the Member States to follow through on its recommendations. Facing human rights problems was the first step; acting to fix them moved them forward on the path of progress.

As they walked this road they needed to shine light on abuses everywhere; the Council’s system of Special Procedures made this possible. These experts travelled the world, recorded what they saw, and reported to the Council. They were the Council’s eyes and ears and they must be able to see clearly and hear well and be free from hindrance. The Secretary-General welcomed the fact that this Council had convened more special sessions in just five years than the Human Rights Commission held during its entire history. They did this with flexibility and creativity; victims shared their stories; fact-finding missions probed complex cases; and Council members responded to breaking developments. However, more must be done to fully rise above national and regional interests. If this Council was to deliver on the promise of its founding, it must go beyond narrow considerations.

This body had come under criticism from various quarters. For this Human Rights Council to fulfil its mandate, it must be seen as impartial and fair. It could not be seen as a place ruled by bias or special interests. It could not be a place that targeted some countries, yet ignored others. It could not be a place where some members overlooked the human rights violations of others so as to avoid scrutiny themselves. That was why the Human Rights Commission was discredited, and this body created in its place to redress the shortcomings of the Human Rights Commission, to function impartially, objectively, and constructively.

The Secretary-General said that he wanted to make two additional points in this regard: first, the Special Rapporteurs and independent experts who represented the Human Rights Council were appointed by the Council, not by the Secretary-General of the United Nations. The Council decided whether they continued in their jobs. In this, there was a delicate balance. They could not, and should not, limit their independence. Yet they also could not condone irresponsible behaviour that undermined the Human Rights Council and the United Nations. Recently, a Special Rapporteur suggested there was an “apparent cover-up” in the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. Mr. Ban wanted to say clearly and directly that he condemned this sort of inflammatory rhetoric. It was preposterous and an affront to the memory of the more than 3,000 people who died in that tragic terrorist attack. It was the responsibility of the Human Rights Council to uphold, at all times, the highest standards of the United Nations and the Human Rights Council.

Secondly, Mr. Ban said they could not be selective in promoting human rights. They had to address the full spectrum of rights with equal force: civil, cultural, economic, social and political. Put simply, their watchword should be: all people, all countries, all rights. That was why the Council was here.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights had been translated into more languages than any other document in the world. This was more than an historic record; it was the collective voice of the world’s people insisting that the Declaration applied everywhere, that no matter what language one spoke or where one lived they should be sheltered by its principles. And yet, though they had translated the Declaration into more than 300 languages, they had yet to fully translate its principles into action. This was their shared responsibility. The express mission of the Human Rights Council was to ensure that every single person could enjoy their human rights in full: all rights for all people.

This week’s commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day was a powerful call to reject all forms of intolerance, including anti-Semitism and other expressions of religious intolerance. In this they had to be especially mindful of growing intolerance against their Muslim brothers and sisters. They must also continue working to protect civilians caught in conflict. This meant accountability and supporting the International Criminal Court that was advancing justice, punishing perpetrators and serving as a warning to all those who might commit atrocities. The Secretary-General said they must especially address rape and gender-based violence.

As they prepared to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration on the Right to Development, they needed to work to make this right a reality for all, in line with the Millennium Development Goals. They had to reject persecution of people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity who may be arrested, detained or executed for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. They may not have popular or political support, but they deserved their support in safeguarding their fundamental human rights. Mr. Ban said that he understood that sexual orientation and gender identity raised sensitive cultural issues, but cultural practice could not justify any violation of human rights.

Women’s treatment as second-class citizens had been justified, at times, as a “cultural practice” and so had institutional racism and other forms of inhuman punishment; but that was merely an excuse. When fellow humans were persecuted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, they must speak out. The Secretary-General said that was what he was doing here and that was his consistent position. Human rights were human rights everywhere, for everyone.

In conclusion, Mr. Ban said the General Assembly founded this Council to promote universal respect for the human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction and in a fair and equal manner. The Assembly charged them, the members of this Council, with upholding the highest standards of human rights. Now they must act in a fair and equal manner and uphold the highest human rights standards, in their own countries and around the world.

CHRISTIAN STROHAL (Austria), speaking on behalf of the Western European and Other States Group, said that the Secretary-General’s visit demonstrated his strong commitment to the universal protection of human rights which was their common endeavour in the United Nations family. The Council and especially the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had a crucial role to play in the worldwide protection and mainstreaming of human rights. The independence of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and its impartiality were preconditions for effective work on the ground. In addition, concerted action was also needed at the local and global levels. Therefore, they welcomed the cooperation of the Office with government, civil society, national human rights institutions, other United Nations entities, the private sector and human rights defenders in their efforts to promote and protect human rights. It was an absolute precondition that for the efficient fulfilment of treaty body mandates that all States cooperate with them in good faith and respect their independence and methods of work. It was equally essential that States cooperated with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, including by supporting the Office’s independence of voice and action.

MANUEL DENGO (Costa Rica), speaking on behalf of the Group of Latin American and Caribbean Countries, said the Secretary-General’s presence confirmed the importance of human rights as a pillar of the United Nations system. Since the founding of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, they had come a long way to correct the flaws of the Human Rights Commission. They had made great strides in many areas including enforced disappearances, unlawful detentions and torture, and human rights education and training. The Universal Periodic Review was the main innovation and perhaps one of the main achievements of the Council. Over the last few months delegations had proposed methods to fine tune their different working methods, and contributions from different groups had proved essential in finding a consensus among the different working methods on the table. The debates had been helpful and this would lead to a strengthened Council.

LARA ROMANO (Croatia), speaking on behalf of the Eastern European Group, said the world must advance the causes of security, development and human rights together, otherwise none would succeed. They were closer to this goal through continuous efforts of integrating human rights in all aspects of the work of the United Nations. They greatly appreciated the valuable work of the High Commissioner and her Office in fulfilling her mandate. If 2010 was a challenging year for the United Nations, 2011 would be even more so. Promoting human rights for all, without selectivity or favour, was a core mission of this Council and significant achievements had already been made, but much more needed to be done.

MOHAMED ALI ALHAKIM (Iraq), speaking on behalf of the Asian Group, said that after five years of existence, the Human Rights Council had made a number of achievements. Among others, 147 countries had undergone the Universal Periodic Review. The Council had held 14 special sessions, including on thematic issues. The Council had also addressed human rights issues through numerous sessions during the year. The Asian Group hoped the Secretary-General’s visit to Geneva gave him a first hand perspective of the review process.

OSITADINMA ANAEDU (Nigeria), speaking on behalf of the African Group, said 2011 was significant in many respects; it was not only a year in which the twenty-fifth anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Right to Development was being marked or one that had been earmarked as the International Year for People of African Descent, but more significantly, it was a year which commemorated the tenth anniversary of the adoption of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action. All of these events had tremendous historical and contemporary relevance for the African Group as they tested the sincerity of the political will of Member States and challenged the claim by humanity to civilized conduct and accommodation for one another. It was for these reasons that the African Group called on the Secretary-General to take the necessary steps to raise within the United Nations family the consciousness of the right to development and the unequivocal imperatives of its full operationalization. The African Group wished to recall that the universally agreed principles of non-discrimination were at the very heart of human rights. Promoting non-discrimination was one of the purposes of the United Nations, as stated in article 1 of the Charter.

CATHERINE BRANSON, of the International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, speaking on behalf of national institutions for human rights, said independent national human rights institutions worked to bridge the gap between international human rights mechanisms and action at the national level. For this reason, they were critical partners for the United Nations. Their foundations were sound and they were rooted in the Paris Principles, endorsed by the General Assembly, as the universal benchmarks for the establishment and functioning of independent and effective national human rights institutions which included: having broad mandates; being pluralistic; being independent; being empowered to publish human rights reports and submit recommendations on legislative provisions; and being equipped to harmonize national legislation and practices with the international human rights instruments to which the State was party. In short, national human rights institutions, like independent judiciaries, representative national parliaments and strong civil society organizations, were cornerstones for protection and promotion of human rights.

BUDI TJAHJONO, of the Committee on Human Rights in Geneva, speaking on behalf of non-governmental organizations, said that five years after its establishment, the Human Rights Council was still struggling to fulfil its mandate, including in addressing situations of violations of human rights in emergency and chronic situations. The Council had failed to respond promptly to several serious situations. It must not be selective and it should be open to debate situations of all violations anywhere they occurred and if governments were not willing to bring serious human rights violations to the attention of the Council, then the High Commissioner and UN Experts should independently alert the Council to those situations that most required its attention. It had become more and more difficult for victims to effectively engage with the Council, therefore the review should look for ways of including the voices of victims in debates, panels and briefings.

Concluding Remarks

SIHASAK PHUANGKETKEOW, President of the Human Rights Council, thanked the Secretary-General for making time to be with them on this occasion and welcomed his commitment to human rights and the Human Rights Council. Mr. Phuangketkeow said he hoped the Council would have another opportunity to engage with Mr. Ban more extensively in the future.