New High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, opens Human Rights Council

September 8, 2014

UN HCHR Al HusseinOn 8 September 2014 the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, addressed for the first time the Human Rights Council, and many will have been listening for clues about where he stands on key issues, how ‘activist’ he is likely to be etc. As the speech was rather long and covered a huge variety of issues, it is not easy to draw any conclusions yet. The fist half addressed issues of war and violence and in particular the humanitarian crises of today.

The role of the individual is beautifully worded: “courage is the first human virtue, revered the world over, the very virtue we value the most as human beings. The courageous individual is not he or she who wields great political power or points a gun at those who do not – that is not courage.  The courageous individual is he or she who has nothing to wield but common sense, reason and the law, and is prepared to forfeit future, family, friends and even life in defence of others, or to end injustice.  In its most magnificent form, the courageous individual undertakes this exertion, without ever threatening or taking the life of someone else, and certainly not someone defenceless.”..”the Takfiris [IS] who recently murdered James Foley and hundreds of other defenceless victims in Iraq and Syria – do they believe they are acting courageously? “…

Navi Pillay was one of the greatest senior officials the UN has ever had, and one of the most able, formidable High Commissioners for Human Rights. That she could annoy many Governments – and she did – was clear; but she believed deeply and movingly in the centrality of victims, and of those who are discriminated against. They needed her vocal chords, her lungs and her pen, and she made everyone listen. I pledge to continue along the same path: to be as firm, yet always fair; critical of states when necessary, and full of praise when they deserve it.”

“A ministerial-level meeting will be held in New York on 25 September, on the need for a code of conduct to be adopted by the permanent members of the UN Security Council regarding use of veto, in situations where atrocities are ongoing and where those facts are well founded.  This is not a call to have the UN Charter rewritten, but a call for the permanent members to exercise a moratorium in very specific circumstances involving atrocity crimes.  I applaud the Government of France for taking the lead over this, and thank it for inviting me to participate on the 25th.  When the veto is exercised for the sole purpose of blocking action by the Security Council, with no alternative course of action offered, and when people are suffering so grievously ­– that is also a form of cruelty.”

After briefly describing his priorities:

  1. halt the increasingly conjoined conflicts in Iraq and Syria. In particular, dedicated efforts are urgently needed to protect religious and ethnic groups, children – who are at risk of forcible recruitment and sexual violence – and women, who have been the targets of severe restrictions.
  2. ensure accountability and stop impunity
  3. to take a step back and look at how and why these crises erupted,

the UN High Commissioner touched on a number of current situations and mentioned the importance of the different mechanisms and bodies. Finally he came to the civil society with the following words:

But the work done by OHCHR, by the Special Procedures, by Treaty Bodies, this Council itself, and indeed, by Member States, could never be achieved without the greater efforts of civil society actors. We need their continuing support and contributions to realise progress. I encourage the Council to strengthen its constructive engagement with civil society actors, and to ensure that their voices can be raised safely and without reprisals.  Freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly are rights that enable people to share ideas, form new thinking, and join together with others to claim their rights. It is through the exercise of these public freedoms that we make informed, considered and intelligent decisions about our development. To restrict them undermines progress. We must acknowledge the value of civic contribution, build the capacity of marginalised voices, ensure a place at the table for civil society actors, and safeguard their activities – including the activities of those who cooperate with this Council, its Special Procedures and Commissions of Inquiry. I take this opportunity to echo the Secretary-General’s condemnation of acts of reprisal against individuals by reason of their engagement with the United Nations.”

At the end of this speech, he paid significant attention to the issue of migration:  “The treatment of non-nationals must observe the minimum standards set by international law. Human rights are not reserved for citizens only, or for people with visas. They are the inalienable rights of every individual, regardless of his or her location and migration status. A tendency to promote law enforcement and security paradigms at the expense of human rights frameworks dehumanises irregular migrants, enabling a climate of violence against them and further depriving them of the full protection of the law.”

See full text at: Media Centre.

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