High Commissioner strongly defends LGBTI rights during annual dialogue with Council
Wednesday, 09 March 2011 23:29


On 3 March 2011, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Navanethem Pillay presented her annual report to the Human Rights Council (the Council). In her introduction, Ms Pillay praised the swift action of the Council in calling a special session on Libya and civil society’s instrumental role in documenting the protest movements in the Middle East. However, she also highlighted the need for more diligence to ensure the protection of human rights during the ongoing struggles in Libya. Additionally, she highlighted progress within the framework of thematic priorities established for 2010/2011, focusing in particular on discrimination and marginalised groups, violent strife and impunity, the role of poverty in blocking progress on human rights, the establishment of field offices, the strengthening of human rights mechanisms and the progressive development of international human rights law.


Ms Pillay, along with many States, focused on the UN General Assembly’s declaration of 2011 as the International Year for People of African Descent. Nigeria (on behalf of the African Group) echoed calls for strengthening the capacity for people of African descent to participate in national dialogue and increase their integration in all political, economic, social and cultural aspects of society.


Unsurprisingly, many States including Pakistan (on behalf of the OIC) and Nigeria (on behalf of the African Group) rejected the High Commissioner’s advocacy on behalf of individuals discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. They claimed that a right not to be discriminated on grounds of sexual orientation is not universally recognised. The High Commissioner in her response emphasised the universality of human rights and strongly reiterated her concern at the prevalence of violence and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) individuals, including targeted killings, criminal sanctions, rape and torture.

Several states, including Nigeria (on behalf of the African Group), Iraq (on behalf of the Arab Group), Indonesia, Chile, Greece, the Philippines, South Africa and Ireland, requested information on what measures OHCHR was taking to ensure that migrant workers are not denied access to essential public services. The High Commissioner stated that under OHCHR’s chairpersonship, the Global Migration Group along with the International Organization for Migration, are calling for the decriminalisation of irregular or undocumented workers. She also mentioned the advocacy of these groups for an alternative to immigration detention in order to ensure that migrant workers, including those in an irregular situation, are not deprived of their human rights.


The right to development was heavily discussed, as this year marks the 25th Anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations' Declaration on the Right to Development. The High Commissioner emphasised the need to promote the right to global development but at the same time the political elements of such a debate. Pakistan (on behalf of the OIC), Nigeria (on behalf of the African Group), Iraq (on behalf of the Arab group), the African Union, Cuba and India, among other States, welcomed the role of OHCHR in affirming the right to development and stressed that the right to development is key in the fight against poverty. Furthermore, many States (Pakistan, along with Nigeria, Brazil and Chile) emphasised that poverty and disempowerment play a significant role in issues of violence and instability and recommended that OHCHR take a more active role in pursuing economic, social and cultural rights and combating inequalities and poverty in the context of the economic, food and climate crises.


Many countries expressed support for the establishment of the 10th treaty body, the Committee on Enforced Disappearances, and the strengthening of the existing treaty body system. However, Cuba expressed concerns about expansion of the system beyond what was manageable. Switzerland, along with Hungary (on behalf of the EU), Canada, India, and Pakistan on behalf of the OIC, emphasised the need for further State consultation in terms of treaty body reform to address challenges that may arise, particularly in terms of proper and efficient resource allocation. The next major meeting on treaty body reform, following meetings in Dublin, Marrakech and Poznan, will take place in May 2011 in Sion Switzerland. It will provide an opportunity for States to provide their input to the process.


Additionally, several States praised the High Commissioner’s country engagement strategy and the establishment of country and regional offices and highlighted the role of OHCHR’s regional offices in providing technical assistance to States for the development of national action plans. Hungary and Spain both stressed the plight of human rights defenders and the need for the Council to adopt additional measures to protect experts and those who cooperate with the Special Procedures.


While many States, including Hungary (on behalf of the EU), the United States, Turkey, and Belgium commended the improved geographic diversity of the staff of the OHCHR, the Russian Federation and China stated that the regional representation within OHCHR is imbalanced and called for additional measures to be taken to address it. Ms Pillay acknowledged that diversity in regional representation is a work in progress but highlighted the improvement in recruitment statistics and the General Assembly’s removal of the restriction on internal recruitment as measures for progress in this area. There was no reiteration of the usual calls for more oversight by the Council of OHCHR's activities, as has been observed during previous sessions of the Council. However, during the meeting of the Council's Bureau on 2 March, the President announced that he intends to present a follow-up to Presidential Statement 15/2 which invited the High Commissioner to submit her strategic framework for discussion in the Council. This may further threaten the independent role of the High Commissioner 


Finally, the High Commissioner addressed the death of Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Minister for the Defense of Minorities on the 2nd of March, 2011. Mr Bhatti was assassinated amid the controversy over blasphemy laws. The High Commissioner urged States to address the prohibition of the incitement of religious hatred while ensuring freedom of expression. The USA, Hungary (on behalf of the EU), Australia, Poland, Brazil, and Italy expressed support for the renewal of the mandate on freedom of expression. They in particular emphasised that restrictions on freedom of expression in the form of blasphemy laws could not be tolerated. Pakistan, however, argued that blasphemy laws are a necessary tool in the protection of religious minorities and are applied without discrimination and fairly. These tensions do not bode well for the negotiations on a new iteration of the Pakistani resolution on ‘defamation of religions’ expected for the current session. A group of more than 100 NGOs have issued a letter asking States to oppose the resolution.


While States showed strong interest in the interactive dialogue with the High Commissioner, the general debate on thematic reports produced by the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General attracted significantly less attention. Only eleven States took the floor and others missed their slot in the list of speakers due to not being present in the room. Out of the 20 reports up for discussion only a handful received mention by States, including a report on the composition of staff of OHCHR and the High Commissioner’s efforts to ensure equitable geographical distribution. Some States, such as India and Cuba, welcomed her achievements but criticised that still only 40 percent of staff come from non-western countries.


A report summarising a controversial seminar on the positive contribution of traditional values to the advancement of human rights initiated by the Russian Federation attracted little attention. Aside from the Russian Federation who emphasised the importance of its initiative, only Hungary (on behalf of the EU) made a comment, stating that a focus on harmful practices eroding human rights would be more useful than a further elaboration on assumed positive effects of values.

Last Updated on Thursday, 10 March 2011 14:42
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