By Junior Mayema,
Opening speech to the High Level Segment of the Human Rights Council
It is an honour for me to address the High-Level Segment of the Human Rights Council for the first time.
When I last addressed this Council, I spoke at length of the cruelty and moral bankruptcy of violent extremists. Alas, the horrors they perpetrate continue daily, and we condemn their merciless conduct daily. And yet, if we are not careful, if we are not completely principled and cunning in our collective attempt to defang them, we will, unwittingly and inexcusably, be advancing their interests. How we define the opening chapters of this already agitated century depends heavily on us not becoming like them. For us, international humanitarian law and international human rights law cannot be trifled with or circumvented, but must be fully observed. Therefore, and without diminishing our continuing rejection of terrorism, I will focus in this statement on the broad conduct of Member States regarding their obligations to uphold human rights.
It has been 70 years since the great Charter of the United Nations was drawn up, and since then States have also written and agreed to a range of strong international treaties, to establish in binding law the legal principles of human rights. They are a distillation of all human experience, all the warnings and screams of our combined human history.
In this room today are the distinguished representatives of many States that have each made specific and precious contributions to humanity. All, by ratifying the UN Charter, have made a clear commitment to, I quote, “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights; in the dignity and worth of the human person; in the equal rights of men and women, and of nations large and small; and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties, and other sources of international law, can be maintained; and to promote social progress, and better standards of life in larger freedom.”
And yet, with alarming regularity, human rights are disregarded, and violated, sometimes to a shocking degree.
States claim exceptional circumstances. They pick and choose between rights. One Government will thoroughly support women’s human rights and those of the LGBT communities, but will balk at any suggestion that those rights be extended to migrants of irregular status. Another State may observe scrupulously the right to education, but will brutally stamp out opposing political views. A third State comprehensively violates the political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights of its people, while vigorously defending the ideals of human rights before its peers.
In recent months I have been disturbed deeply by the contempt and disregard displayed by several States towards the women and men appointed by you as this Council’s independent experts – and also by the reprisals and smear campaigns that are all too frequently exercised against representatives of civil society, including those who engage with the Council and its bodies. I appeal to all of you, once again, to focus on the substance of the complaint, rather than lash out at the critic – whether that person is mandated by States, is a member of my Office, or is a human rights defender.
The overwhelming majority of victims of human rights abuses around the world share two characteristics: Deprivation, and discrimination – whether it is based on race or ethnicity, gender, beliefs, sexual orientation, caste or class. From hunger to massacres, sexual violence and slavery, human rights violations are rooted in these hidden, and sometimes not so hidden, factors.
They are not spontaneously generated. Most violations of human rights result from policy choices, which limit freedom and participation, and create obstacles to the fair sharing of resources and opportunities.
The most powerful instrument in the arsenal we have against poverty and conflict is the weapon of massive instruction. Respect for the human rights of all, justice, education, equality – these are the strongly interlocking elements that will build fair, confident and resilient societies; true development; and a permanent peace.
Our discussions during this session will only be of some worth if every State represented here will take the recommendations of the Council, its Universal Periodic Review, and its expert mechanisms out of this room, and give them real impact where it matters – in your countries.
As a former diplomat myself, I am well aware of the preoccupation with protocol which makes the representatives of States jostle for places on Councils, or for prominent speaking slots in key summits, with the view that these are important markers of the world’s respect for their nation. But this agitation alone is simply meaningless, because everybody knows when people are silenced, when they fear arbitrary arrest or worse.
Everybody knows when police use torture, and when tweets are brutally suppressed. Everybody knows when discrimination means poverty, while corrupt elites gorge on public goods, supported by a corrupt judiciary. Everybody knows when women are treated like property, and children go hungry, and unschooled, in squalid neighbourhoods.
Some of the evidence may be hidden. But the reality, in far too many countries, of massacres and sexual violence; crushing poverty; the exclusive bestowal of health-care and other vital resources to the wealthy and well-connected; the torture of powerless detainees; the denial of human dignity – these things are known. And Excellencies, they are what truly make up a State’s reputation; together with the real steps – if any – taken by the State to prevent abuses and address social inequalities, and whether it honours the dignity of its people.
The only real measure of a Government’s worth is not its place in the solemn ballet of grand diplomacy. It is the extent to which it is sensitive to the needs – and protects the rights – of its nationals and other people who fall under its jurisdiction, or over whom it has physical control.
Some policy-makers persuade themselves that their circumstances are exceptional, creating a wholly new reality unforeseen by the law. This logic is abundant around the world today: I arrest arbitrarily and torture because a new type of war justifies it. I spy on my citizens because the fight against terrorism requires it. I don’t want new immigrants, or I discriminate against minorities, because our communal identity is being threatened now as never before. I kill without any form of due process, because if I do not, others will kill me. And so it goes, on and on, as we spiral into aggregating crises.
I must remind you of the enduring and universal validity of the international human rights treaties that your States wrote and ratified. In reality, neither terrorism, nor globalisation, nor migration are qualitatively new threats that can justify overturning the legal foundations of life on Earth. They are not new.
I believe our work together in this Human Rights Council is vital. And I urge you, and the States you represent, to align your actions with the recommendations of the Council and its mechanisms – to truly take this work out of this august Chamber, and bring it to the streets and households of your countries.
I am highly conscious of the increasing demands and responsibilities placed on my Office, and the need to ensure that we can more effectively serve the peoples of the world – most particularly, the victims of human rights violations.
On Thursday, I will introduce a significant reorganization of my Office, based on the outcomes of an extensive functional review. There will be some reshuffling at Headquarters, but the essential movement will be to boost our presence in regional and field offices, in order to assist you, the Member States, more directly, and to make our work on your behalf as effective as possible.
Finally, I would like to pay tribute to all OHCHR staff members, particularly those who work in situations of grave and daily danger. These women and men often risk death to both uphold our principles and to provide us with vital information. I am dismayed to learn that because of lack of will by Member States, the United Nations is not in a position to make adequate provision for support to staff who are injured in high-risk missions, or to the families of staff-members who have been killed in such circumstances. Frankly, this is appalling and I appeal to all of you to change it.
At a time of intensifying global anxiety, I believe the people of the world are crying out for profound and inspiring leadership equal to the challenges we face. We must therefore renew, by the strongest action, our dedication to the reality of inalienable and universal human rights, to end discrimination, deprivation, and the seemingly inexhaustible litany of conflicts and crises that generate such terrible, and needless, suffering.
What will become of us, of our world, if we ignore our treaties and principles? Can we be so stupid as to repeat scenes from the twentieth century, punctured as it was by such awful inhumanity? You must not make it so. This is principally your burden, and ours. Together, if we succeed in turning the corner, in improving our global condition, we can then say the screams of history and of the millions upon millions of victims, have been heard, finally. Let us make it so.
Advancing Universal Values at the UN Human Rights Council
Our commitment is driven by the founding values of our nation, and the conviction that international peace, security, and prosperity are strengthened when human rights and fundamental freedoms are respected and protected.
I had the opportunity to speak at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva today — at a time that represents an extraordinarily important moment not only for the future of the HRC, but also for human rights around the globe.
We support the HRC because we strongly believe in its mission and its possibilities. We know that at best the Council can be a valuable means for reminding every nation of its commitments and obligations to human rights and for holding countries accountable when they fail to meet international standards. It provides a means for self-evaluation on the part of individual nations, including through the universal periodic review process.
The HRC can help countries to respond successfully to domestic human rights challenges, as we’ve seen firsthand in Cote d’Ivoire and elsewhere. The Council can help countries advance global norms like LGBT rights.
The HRC can also play a critical role in shaping the global response to situations where human rights violations have reached levels that stagger the imagination and shock the conscience.
Sadly, that is the case in far too many countries today.
In parts of the Middle East and Africa, violent extremists have made it clear that not only do they have zero regard for human rights, but they have zero regard for human life. We’ve seen groups like Daesh burn human beings alive, barbarically behead prisoners, sell girls into slavery, and execute widely and indiscriminately.
In Syria, those who escape the horrific attacks of extremist thugs do so only to face a brutal dictator who gasses his own people, starves them as a weapon of war, and continues to barrage them with barrel bombs that fall on their schools, their hospitals, their mosques, their children and women indiscriminately.
In North Korea, tens of thousands of people live as virtual slaves in 2015. There is no freedom of expression, worship, or political dissent.
And then there’s the crisis in Ukraine. In Crimea and in the separatist-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine, men, women, and children are being killed, tortured and sexually assaulted. They are detained arbitrarily, abducted for ransom, forced into labor, prosecuted and persecuted because of who they are and where they worship.
Too many people in too many places are facing unbearable realities.
It is up to the HRC to shed light on those realities and to help to hold those who violate human rights accountable. Working with governments across the globe, the HRC can help to create a future that is much brighter than the present or the past.
Since re-engaging the HRC in 2009, we have made historic progress and gains — gains made in partnership with HRC member countries.
Consider the unprecedented resolutions this Council has passed to respond to threats facing civil society, to better protect the human rights of LGBT persons, to promote freedom of religion and freedom of expression, including through HRC Resolution 16/18.
Consider the indispensable role the HRC has played in encouraging leaders to live up to their promises and commitments in countries such as Burma and Sri Lanka, where there are opportunities for real change.
Consider the mountain of evidence we’ve compiled detailing horrific human rights abuses by government forces and terrorists in Syria.
Consider how the Commission of Inquiry created by this council changed the conversation regarding the DPRK’s appalling record on human rights.
And consider the great work of the special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, which spotlighted violations there.
Make no mistake, these are all significant accomplishments. The more the international community understands about specific human rights violations, the greater the pressure will be on bad actors to change course. Although progress may not be seen as rapidly as we might wish that pressure often translates into the kind of change that saves lives and expands freedom.
Together we can continue to make progress and help the Council fulfill its mandate to make the world a better and safer place. But we must address the roadblocks that can hinder our progress. The HRC’s continued bias against Israel risks undermining the credibility of the entire organization. We will oppose any effort — wherever it occurs — by any group or participant in the UN system to arbitrarily and regularly delegitimize or isolate Israel. When it comes to human rights, no country on earth should be free from scrutiny, but neither should any country be subject to unfair or unfounded bias.
When the stakes are as high as they are today and when people in every corner of the globe are denied the rights that they deserve, the HRC must live up to the standards upon which it was created. Together, we have to be the voice for those who are silenced by their leaders.
The world desperately needs a Council to be the source of hope for those who fear that their suffering may never end or never even be recognized. The United States remains deeply committed to the HRC’s important mission, and we certainly intend to remain deeply involved in the HRC, which is why we are running for re-election. The Council needs us, all of its member nations, to dare greatly and to live up to the highest standards. Because, when it does that, all of our nations can live up to the ideals that we share.
And meanwhile here is what Russia is doing:
st June, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a far-reaching administrative ruling that offered marital benefits for the first time to all of the United Nations’ lesbian and gay employees, as well as to other U.N. workers who had entered legally recognized domestic partnerships. On Monday, March 2, Russia gave the plan a resounding nyet.
Speaking Monday morning at a meeting of the U.N.’s main budget committee, a Russian diplomat demanded that Ban reverse his decision on the matter, saying the U.N. chief’s action violated a U.N. General Assembly resolution that left it to U.N. employees’ governments to determine whether are eligible for spousal benefits. Moscow has been weighing whether to force a vote in the budget committee, known as the Fifth Committee, to halt funding such benefits, a vote that it likely could win. Unlike the U.N. Security Council, the United States and other big powers don’t have the power to veto votes in the Fifth Committee. While its decisions are generally made by consensus, states can call for a vote.
“We will insist that the secretary-general urgently revoke the administrative bulletin” expanding benefits to same-sex couples, the Russian diplomat told the committee.
“We will insist that the secretary-general urgently revoke the administrative bulletin” expanding benefits to same-sex couples, the Russian diplomat told the committee.
Russia’s critics characterized the gambit as a cynical political maneuver aimed at checking the authority of a U.N. leader who has clashed with Moscow over its policies from Syria to Ukraine. Russia has transformed what is by all accounts a low-priority administrative dispute into a high-profile power struggle with the U.N. leader.
Russia “is looking for any excuse to curtail the U.N. secretary-general’s authority,” said Jessica Stern, the executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. “It’s no secret that the secretary-general and Russia have been at cross-purposes over Ukraine and Syria, and the Russians have found the perfect political vehicle for attacking him.”
Philippe Bolopion, the U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch, said U.N. member states “should push back hard against Russia’s backwards efforts to impose on the U.N. the same kind of homophobic attitudes Moscow promotes at home.”
The Russian move comes several weeks after its diplomats distributed a memo, known as an aide-mémoire, to all U.N. members arguing that Ban’s action “violates the sovereign rights of members states to determine the legal framework of [the] life of their citizens.” Moscow said the move would make U.N. states that do not recognize same-sex marriages liable for the costs of some of those additional benefits and increase the likelihood of fraud. Under the new arrangement, according to the Russian memo, “each staff member who is not married can easily register sham traditional or same-sex marriage and can get additional dependency allowances.”
The European Union and the United States challenged the Russian position, saying the U.N. secretary-general had the authority to extend benefits for employees in domestic partnerships without seeking the approval of U.N. member states. “The secretary-general, as the head of this organization, has broad authority to manage U.N. staff under his authority, and we will protect his prerogatives in this manner,” Isobel Coleman, the U.S. representative to the United Nations for management and reform, told the U.N. budget committee Monday. “This should not be a forum for member states to undermine essential rights with respect to race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”
U.N. officials say the Russian initiative, were it to succeed, could have an impact well beyond same-sex marriages, risking benefits for children adopted in a foreign country.
The U.N. first tackled benefits for same-sex couples in January 2004, when then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued an administrative order, known as a bulletin, that extended benefits to spouses in “domestic partnerships” as long as the union was considered legal in the staff member’s country.
The decision drew protests from conservative states, including the Vatican, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (now called the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation), a bloc consisting of 56 Islamic countries. They pressured the U.N. to reissue a new bulletin, stripping out any references to domestic partnerships and reinforcing the need for a U.N. employee to secure his or her government’s approval to receive spousal benefits.
The new bulletin, adopted in September 2004, still allowed U.N. employees from countries where same-sex marriage was legal to receive benefits for their spouses. But it gave conservative countries a virtual veto over their nationals’ ability to receive such benefits, even if they were married in a place like New York or Paris, where same-sex marriage is recognized by the state.
The arrangement, according to U.N. officials, proved inherently discriminatory, denying benefits to U.N. employees who had the misfortune of being born in countries where same-sex marriage is outlawed. U.N. lawyers also feared it would set the stage for legal challenges within the organization. In June, Ban sought to rectify the situation, issuing a new bulletin that took the exclusive power to determine an employee’s eligibility for benefits out of the hands of his or her government. Instead, the U.N. will now look to the “competent authority” — that is, the city, country, or church or synagogue — that recognized the domestic partnership in the first place.
Russia, which has taken a harsher stance on gay rights under President Vladimir Putin, has only recently joined the fight, according to U.N. officials and human rights groups. In its memo, Russia raised concern about the “financial and legal implications” of the U.N.’s policy. But an internal U.N. review turned up only one case since Ban issued his administrative ruling last June in which a U.N. employee claimed benefits for a same-sex marriage, according to a senior U.N. official.
Photo credit: David McNew/AFP/Getty Images
Correction, March 2, 2015: Jessica Stern is executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. An earlier version of this article mistakenly called the organization the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Council.
Political consensus urgent to protect human rights, Ban tells opening session of UN council
2 March 2015 – The United Nations has the mandates and tools it needs to prevent human rights violations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told delegations gathered in Geneva today for the opening of the current session of the world body’s Human Rights Council, while he warned that the biggest challenge to using these tools is lack of political consensus among Member States.
“I appeal to the Human Rights Council to unite behind early, practical steps to support national actors in promoting and protecting human rights. Early action on human rights helps to strengthen national sovereignty, rather than challenge or resist it,” Mr. Ban said via video message at the opening of the three-day High-Level Segment of the 47-member body’s 28th session.
“The world faces serious violations of human rights, from discrimination and inequality to oppression and violent extremism. Our shared challenge is to do far more to keep these and other abuses from occurring in the first place,” added the Secretary-General, who was joined by the Council’s President, Joachim Rucker, and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.
The Council also heard statements from the President of The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the Prime Minister of Fiji and dignitaries from 20 States who spoke about their concerns regarding the situation in a number of countries around the world and outlined some of the efforts their countries were undertaking in the promotion and protection of human rights.
Mr. Ban called the protection and realization of human rights “intrinsic to the entire agenda of the United Nations” and underscored the role of capacity-building, monitoring and reporting including through the work of the Human Rights Up Front Initiative. “The conflict in Syria offers just one example where early United Nations efforts to address human rights violations might have averted a human and political catastrophe,” he said, emphasizing that Member States must do their part to generate this “much-needed shift” in the way they work.
Also addressing the Council for the first time since taking his post last year, High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said the world must be “completely principled and cunning in its collective attempt to defang” violent extremists.
“For us, international humanitarian law and international human rights law cannot be trifled with or circumvented, but must be fully observed,” Mr. Zeid stressed, saying how even though the UN Charter was established 70 years ago, with alarming regularity, human rights are disregarded, and violated, sometimes to a shocking degree.
States claim exceptional circumstances, he said. “They pick and choose between rights. One Government will thoroughly support women’s human rights and those of the LGBT communities, but will balk at any suggestion that those rights be extended to migrants of irregular status. Another State may observe scrupulously the right to education, but will brutally stamp out opposing political views. A third State comprehensively violates the political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights of its people, while vigorously defending the ideals of human rights before its peers.”
“Some of the evidence may be hidden. But the reality, in far too many countries, of massacres and sexual violence; crushing poverty; the exclusive bestowal of health-care and other vital resources to the wealthy and well-connected; the torture of powerless detainees; the denial of human dignity – these things are known,” he said, adding: “And delegates, they are what truly make up a State’s reputation; together with the real steps – if any taken to prevent abuses and address social inequalities.”
The High-Commissioner said he is “disturbed deeply” by the disregard displayed by several States towards the Council’s independent experts – and also by the reprisals and smear campaigns that are all too frequently exercised against representatives of civil society.
The only real measure of a Government’s worth is not its place in the solemn ballet of grand diplomacy. Rather it is the extent to which it is sensitive to the needs – and protects the rights – of its nationals and other people who fall under its jurisdiction, Mr. Zeid said, calling on Member States to align their actions with the recommendations of the Human Rights Council.
As an inter-governmental body within the UN, the Council is responsible for strengthening the protection of human rights worldwide and for addressing situations of human rights violations and make recommendations on them.
Mr. Zeid commended the work of all staff of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), particularly those who work in situations of daily danger. He expressed dismay to learn that “because of lack of will by Member States,” the UN is not in a position to make adequate provision for support to staff that are injured in high-risk missions, or to the families of staff-members who have been killed in such circumstances.
“Frankly, this is appalling and I appeal to all of you to change it,” he said.
Also addressing the Council, via video message, General Assembly President Sam Kutesa said that Member States bear the primary responsibility to protect their citizens and provide them with internationally agreed upon human rights. It is essential therefore that the Council take this into account when dealing with rights challenges and utilize the Universal Periodic Review mechanism.
“In recent times around the world, we have witnessed an unsettling rise in many forms of intolerance, discrimination and prejudice. These behaviours have culminated in a wide range of negative outcomes; including stereotyping, stigmatization, exclusion, threats and even extreme violence,” he said.
Mr. Kutesa called on the Human Rights Council to focus more on social and economic rights and in particular, the right to development, as these are pivotal to the attainment of an acceptable standard of living in the most economically challenges parts of the world.
“As we formulate a new, transformative development framework this year at the United Nations, we must bear in mind the inextricable link between development and human rights,” he added.