UN human rights chief lists tackling discrimination and impunity among top priorities

The UN’s top human rights official said there were “huge gaps” between the “lofty pledges” made by states and the realities of daily life for many of their inhabitants, pointing out that “no country in the world can claim to be free of human rights violations.”

In particular, she noted, that no country is immune from discrimination, listing by way of example 17 European countries where violence or discrimination against Roma has been recorded, ranging from fatal attacks and police brutality to forced evictions and systemic discrimination that prevent Roma and similar groups from getting access to fundamental services such as housing, health care and ID cards.

In Latin America, she noted positive developments with regard to some states’ approach to indigenous peoples, but added that “land grabs, the suppression of traditional customs, outright violence and deadly attacks continue to take place.”

While condemning the violence committed during the recent disturbances in the Xinjiang and Tibetan Autonomous Regions, she urged the Chinese authorities to respect human rights in their efforts to uphold the law, and “to reflect on the underlying causes of such incidents, which include discrimination and the failure to protect minority rights.”

Pillay, who as President of the Rwanda Tribunal had helped pioneer groundbreaking jurisprudence on rape as genocide and also co-founded a women’s rights NGO, told the 47-member Human Rights Council that the human rights of women continue to be denied or curtailed in many countries around the world. While noting some improvements in the Gulf region, she stated that the overall situation of women there “falls well short of international standards.”

The treatment of migrants is, she said, “one of the most serious human rights problems in our world today” citing the numerous deaths at sea, and the increasing tendency of states, as well as passing ships, to treat imperiled boats of migrants as “dangerous waste” rather than as human beings in distress.

“States have an obligation to respect, protect and fulfil a wide range of human rights of all individuals under their jurisdiction, including all migrants, regardless of their immigration status,” the High Commissioner said.

Pillay issued a strong call to governments to combat impunity for crimes committed during armed conflicts, and in particular those directed against civilians.

“I urge the international community, including this Council, to insist on full accountability for all violations and to ensure assistance to the victims,” she said. “I also urge all those States contributing to military operations, whether it be in their own country or in other countries, to enhance their efforts to prevent civilian casualties, which in Afghanistan and elsewhere remain at unacceptably high levels.”

She noted that an “intolerable” number of displaced people continue to live in camps, adding that in the case of Sri Lanka “ internally displaced persons are effectively detained under conditions of internment.”

Highlighting another area where concerted action is needed by states, Pillay referred to an “alarming global trend” of governments, or other powerful forces, persecuting or even killing peaceful opponents and critics.

“In too many countries, brave human rights advocates, journalists and dissidents face abduction, arbitrary detention, torture and even death to defend their rights and freedoms and those of the communities they serve or represent,” she said, citing “the unfair and arbitrary detention” of Aung Sang Suu Kyi and more than 2,000 other political prisoners, which, she said “makes a mockery of Myanmar’s commitment to democratic transition.”

By way of other examples, she cited the twenty-year prison sentence imposed on Sri Lankan journalist J.S. Tissainayagam, who had criticized the army’s treatment of Tamil civilians, and the detention and ill-treatment of a prominent human rights defender in Zimbabwe, as well as the recent murders of human rights defenders in Mexico and Russia. She also called on the Government of Iran to release those detained for peaceful protest in the wake of the recent elections, and to investigate reports of their ill-treatment.

“Combating impunity and strengthening accountability both in situations of peace and conflict will remain an important priority for OHCHR,” Pillay said.

“Accountability for violations that have been committed is critical to restoring public confidence and trust,” she stated, adding that the Human Rights Council “should be prepared to confront violations wherever and whenever they take place.”

(*) Statement of Ms. Navanethem Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Human Rights Council, 12th session (Geneva, 15 September 2009):