Top human rights expert says human rights is treated as the 'Cinderella' of three UN pillars
Thursday, 15 November 2012 09:00


On 24 October 2012, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Navi Pillay, presented her report to the 67th session of the General Assembly’s Third Committee.  Ms Pillay's statement focused on the crisis in Syria, the treaty body strengthening process and the  lack of funding for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).  She also summarized the work and activities of the OHCHR worldwide.  In the interactive dialogue, Member States discussed these issues as well as the protection of human rights defenders, discrimination against members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, and recent tensions surrounding freedom of expression.


OHCHR’s role in the treaty body strengthening process proved to be the most controversial topic discussed during the dialogue. Ms Pillay reminded States that  strengthening of the treaty body system was necessary for the effective functioning of the human rights system, and noted that her report on the treaty body strengthening process was a culmination of discussions with all relevant stakeholders.  


Pakistan, Switzerland, South Africa, Bangladesh and Angola welcomed OHCHR’s role in the treaty body strengthening process.  A key concern for some States was OHCHR’s decision to move the New York meetings of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the Human Rights Committee to Geneva. The Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the African Group, Russia and Bangladesh expressed discontent about this decision. Some States questioned the financial benefits of the move, while others noted that the committee experts were not consulted. Ms Pillay countered that consultations had taken place, however, the move was essential for budgetary reasons.  The Office had overspent extra budgetary funds by $40 million, so she had asked her staff to make a 7.85 percent cut.  The decision to move the meetings from New York to Geneva was part of this cut.


Some States also expressed concern about an OHCHR letter that requests States to disclose their standing national reporting practices and coordinating mechanisms.  CARICOM and Liechtenstein questioned whether the request would place an additional undue burden on Member States. Russia and China vehemently argued that the request was a violation of General Assembly resolution 66/254 (2012), which established the intergovernmental consultative process on reform of the treaty bodies.  Ms Pillay clarified that the intention was for Member States to share best practices, leading to a fruitful discussion that would ultimately benefit States.


Ms Pillay and various Member States expressed much concern over the limited resources available to OHCHR. OHCHR is under financial constraints, due in part to the support the Office provides to the Human Rights Council, including the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and an ever-growing number of special procedures. Liechtenstein, Algeria, Chile, Malaysia, Morocco Norway, and Switzerland questioned how OHCHR would address underfunding. Ms Pillay responded that OHCHR was looking to Member States for financial support as less than 5 percent of the regular budget covers all human rights mechanisms.  She noted that although human rights is one of the three pillars of the UN, it is often ignored. “This tradition of keeping human rights as the Cinderella of the three pillars must be addressed,” she said.


Voicing her concern about the protracted violence and escalating bloodshed in Syria, Ms Pillay noted that protection of human rights,  while a daunting challenge, is the raison d'etre of the UN.  She had briefed the General Assembly and the Security Council on Syria, reiterating to States that outright disrespect for human rights cannot be tolerated, and that the UN must act as a protector of these rights. While taking into account important political concerns, it was urgent to find ways to avert massive loss of civilians and human rights violations.  International law obliged States to protect their people, and where a State manifestly failed to carry out that obligation, the international community should take urgent measures to protect the Syrian people. The European Union (EU), Liechtenstein, Malaysia, and United Kingdom (UK) expressed support for OHCHR’s work in addressing human rights violations in Syria.  Syria continued to question Ms Pillay’s evaluation of the conflict, arguing she relentlessly criticized the Syrian government while ignoring offenses of the opposition.


Both Chile and the UK expressed concern about human rights defenders. Chile declared the UN must guarantee security for those who defend human rights. Echoing Chile, the UK referred to the disturbing trend of reprisals, questioning what the international community could do in order to end reprisals. An attack on human rights defenders for cooperating with the UN is an attack on UN principles.  Ms Pillay expressed disappointment that defenders continued to be threatened, harassed, and killed for engaging with the UN system.  She reminded Member States of their obligation to conduct investigations and provide effective remedies for victims of reprisals.


Ms Pillay highlighted that OHCHR had conducted a study of LGBT rights, and she hoped it would encourage further dialogue between the States on sexual orientation and gender identity issues.  Pakistan noted  that Member States remain divided on the issue, and Iran encouraged the High Commissioner to avoid reports on controversial issues that fall, in its view, outside internationally recognised norms.  The United States (US) was fully supportive of OHCHR’s advocacy on behalf of the LGBT community.


Highlighting recent tensions between freedom of expression and respect for religion, Ms Pillay stressed that international human rights law provides a framework to protect freedom of speech while sanctioning incitement to hatred. She discussed the various workshops held by her office to try to reconcile the tension between freedom of speech and incitement to hatred.  Malaysia, Algeria, Bangladesh and Iran condemned religious hatred, arguing that with freedom comes responsibility.


Numerous member States expressed alarm about Israel’s withdrawal from the Human Rights Council. Liechtenstein, Malaysia, Pakistan, Morocco and UK were concerned that Israel’s rejection of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) threatened the universality of the system. Ms Pillay assured delegations that she was making every effort to ensure universal participation. OHCHR had asked Israel to reconsider its disengagement. Ms Pillay stressed that the UN was set up for all by all and there was a fundamental obligation to participate in the world body.


Last Updated on Friday, 16 November 2012 11:13
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