Address by Ms. Navanethem Pillay United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights: Human Rights at Work, a view from OHCHR shopfloor

Stockholm, 30th November 2010

Dear Colleagues,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am honored to receive the 2010 Stockholm Human Rights Award and grateful to the International Bar Association, the International Legal Assistance Consortium and the Swedish Bar Association for bestowing this recognition upon me.  I accept it on behalf of all my colleagues at OHCHR whose work on human rights makes me proud every day.

I have just reached the mid-point of my mandate as High Commissioner for Human Rights, and so this is an excellent opportunity to reflect on some of the challenges we face and results that my Office has achieved under my watch. 
My presentation tonight is not going to be a lofty lecture.  Rather, I wish to offer you a glimpse of the inner mechanisms, the often quiet and uncelebrated yet crucial work that my staff carries out on a daily basis both at headquarters in Geneva as well as in the mostly far-flung locations of our 56 field operations, many carried out in partnership with UN country teams, or as components of UN peace missions.  We also run regional offices: the latest has been established in Brussels.
We work in challenging times:  the recent financial and economic downturns—together with food shortages, climate-related catastrophes and continuing violence—have shattered our complacency over lasting security, prosperity, safety and the enjoyment of freedoms by all.   These challenges demand responses from the international community that can counter both deeply rooted and chronic human rights violations in many countries. 

With this imperative in mind, I sought to contextualize the different aspects of OHCHR activities within the framework of strategic priorities that I set last year in order to better address a wide variety of obstacles that stand in the way of human rights.  

These include discrimination, inequality, violence, impunity, poverty and exclusion and our efforts to assist human rights mechanisms, as well as nurture and strengthen human rights law, its development and applications internationally, regionally, and at the national level.

These human rights conditions are by no means stand-alone categories. More often than not they are linked by a cause-and-effect relationship or occur simultaneously.

I will begin with the issue of discrimination, which stands as a persistent obstacle to the realization of human rights and the empowerment of the vulnerable in many countries.   It is a matter of grave concern, that all around us, and particularly here, in Europe, in response to the financial cut backs, and migration there seems to be a surge of discriminatory attitudes towards minorities and foreigners.  To draw attention to the need to counter discrimination in all its forms, everywhere, I have marked this year’s Human Rights Day as a day of recognition of human rights defenders who fight against discrimination.

Racial Discrimination
Much of our focus has, quite rightly, been on racial discrimination, particularly as a follow-up to last year’s Durban Review Conference against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.   My Office is actively engaged in supporting and providing technical assistance to States for the development of national action plans to counter racial discrimination.

Discriminatory practices also marginalize and stigmatize indigenous peoples, minorities, and groups and individuals who are considered as the “others”.   By way of example, I would like to tell you of our work with the “Haliya” community in Nepal.  They are bonded laborers from traditionally marginalized communities who have been forced to work without pay for generations.  The project focuses on monitoring, advocacy and capacity development of local civil society organizations, including Haliya associations, and coordination with donor agencies. Most of Haliya are Dalits, often considered ‘untouchables,’ at the bottom of the caste system and most of them are landless.  They work for landowners to pay off loans taken by their ancestors. As they do not earn cash, they are unable to pay these debts, which are then passed on to the next generation.   The OHCHR initiative fed into the national campaign, prompting the Government of Nepal to declare the emancipation of Haliyas in September 2008. 

Of particular concern is the growing and increasingly more vociferous and violent discrimination against migrants whose movements generate complex human rights challenges. Intolerance towards migrants is not only an expression of anxiety over competition for scarce jobs and fewer economic opportunities.  All too often it also embodies ethnic, racial and religious prejudices.  In many countries it is openly stoked to suit the purposes of supremacist political agendas.

The reality is that around 214 million people live outside their country of origin, many having moved for a variety of reasons in which the search for protection and the search for opportunity are often inextricably entwined.  

But empowering migrants to claim their rights does not occur automatically. This outcome depends on supportive and pro-active policy measures. Against this backdrop OHCHR, as the current chair of the Global Migration Group (comprising 14 UN institutions, the World Bank and IOM), has sought to place human rights as the central of the approach to migration management.

International human rights standards provide benchmarks, a normative framework, and a set of guidelines for policy-makers seeking to align their measures with international law.   Human rights standards require, for example, that migrants be fully informed about their rights, and their responsibilities, throughout the cycle of migration – from country of origin, to countries of transit and destination, and in some cases to eventual return.  They stipulate that migrants have the right to just and favorable conditions of work, to equal protection under the law, protection from arbitrary arrest and detention, as well as the right to adequate health and housing, and to education.

The enjoyment of these rights has made migration a positive and empowering experience for millions, but many others continue to be discriminated against and remain vulnerable.

In particular, irregular migrants often fall prey to human smugglers, trafficking, and to exploitative working conditions.  This is one of today’s most critical, and indeed most complex, human rights challenges. I have consistently called for the protection of the rights of vulnerable migrants. 

Domestic Workers
Similar vulnerabilities are a daily staple in the lives of countless domestic workers who are mainly women and, as such, often endure multiple forms of discrimination. At OHCHR we have worked with governments to devise appropriate responses to the particular predicament of these workers.  For example, in Lebanon, our office in Beirut helped to develop a unified contract for migrant domestic workers in cooperation with the International Labour Organisation.  This initiative sought to address the plight of many migrants who constitute a significant proportion of the labor force in the region, but who did not enjoy the same rights as Lebanese nationals in comparable occupations.  Their isolation and vulnerability exposed the workers to unfair conditions and other abuses, including sexual violence.

Against this background, I have decided to devote International Human Rights Day, on December 10 this year, to the fight against discrimination.  Our particular emphasis will be on the human rights defenders who in their daily work seek to counter exclusion and marginalization in all their debilitating aspects.



Distinguished Colleagues,

When discrimination, xenophobia, and intolerance are left to fester unchecked and unrestrained, they may burst into communal violence and even large-scale conflict.  Lennart Aspegren, the distinguished judge from Sweden, who is with us today, and I, have experienced this when we served together as judges in the Genocide Trials of the UN ICTR.

The protection of civilians affected by conflict means, first and foremost, protecting the human rights of individuals according to international law. And, as I stated in my address to the UN Security Council on November 22nd, it means mobilizing a higher level of political will to take timely and effective action to prevent abuses, protect the vulnerable, hold perpetrators to account, and ensure redress for victims.

To this effect, a first indispensable step is establishing the facts.  And to do so, human rights investigations often come into play.  These inquiries provide an historical record of violations, which may otherwise disappear in the fog of war, or be deformed through deliberate distortions of the truth, or conflicting claims on the part of opposing factions.  Such inquiries serve to establish both a chain of accountability and vehicles to deliver justice and redress to the victims. They aim at influencing positive change in laws and practice.  They draw attention to serious violations and accountability gaps, and help mobilize action nationally and internationally.  

Human rights investigations can also involve mapping exercises, so called because of their complexity, scope and size.  My Office recently released a 500-page mapping exercise in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  The report describes serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law, including violence against women and children, committed in that country from 1993 to 2003 and covers the activities of armies of the DRC and neighboring states.   The mapping report honors the memory of victims of the conflict and has been welcomed by some 270 NGOs in the DRC.    The report’s overarching objective is to assist the Government of the DRC to identify appropriate transitional justice mechanisms to deal with the legacy of these violations in terms of criminal justice, truth, reparation, institutional reform, and rebuilding.  Such an offer of assistance has been made by way of a letter from the UN Secretary-General to the President of the DRC and a response is awaited.
More recently, the JHRO in Kinshasa documented the mass rapes that occurred in Walikili, the subject of UN Security Council scrutiny.

What has become apparent in the course of our work is the importance for victims to receive reparation as a tangible form of recognition of their suffering.  In the spirit of promoting accountability and reparations for large-scale human rights violations, OHCHR has undertaken efforts to strengthen assistance and support to victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  In October, a high-level panel of experts, led by my deputy, held a series of hearings in various parts of the country with survivors of sexual violence, as well as with other actors. The survivors, mainly women, recounted gang rapes by rebel groups and soldiers and their continuing fear of further attacks.  They felt that they had been “forgotten.”  The justice system had utterly failed them.   Yet these survivors made clear their demand for justice and reparations. 

Ultimately, this project will provide a much needed advocacy tool not only for developing reparations options for all victims of sexual violence, but also for addressing the many weaknesses in the judicial system that affect prosecution of these egregious violations of human rights.  In order to do this, my Office plans to work closely with UN Women, Unifem and Margot Walstrom, the SRSG on Sexual Violence.

Transitional Justice

OHCHR also has the lead within the UN for transitional justice mechanisms.  These measures can be explored both to deliver remedies to victims and help achieve reconciliation.  If carried out purposefully, with clarity and with the best interest of victims in mind, these processes can also re-establish the confidence of citizens in those public institutions which have a direct bearing on the protection of their rights.  

In recent years we have developed strategies for transitional justice and carried out training and related activities in numerous locations—from Kathmandu to Bujumbura, from Lomé to Nairobi and elsewhere.

In my view, overcoming divisions and developing trust within societies recovering from conflict, communal strife or repressive rule are central to my mandate of protection and promotion of human rights.  We are aware that dealing with past atrocities must be approached within context in different countries.  We work in close consultation with communities involved to identify their best interests.


In Guatemala, for example, one of the post-conflict tasks was accounting for the estimated 45,000 people who had disappeared during that country’s 36-year war.  The first case submitted to public hearing was considered by the Guatemalan Constitutional Court where my Office presented a brief as amicus curiae. We drew the Court’s attention to the position under international and regional human rights law which sets out Guatemala’s international obligations to investigate, try and punish the perpetrators of human rights violations. The brief underlined the continuing or permanent characteristic of the crime of enforced disappearance under international law. 

In its July 2009 decision, the Constitutional Court upheld this principle. Its decision has, for the first time, opened the door to prosecutions for the tens of thousands of enforced disappearances in Guatemala, and an end to the impunity that has reigned well after the conflict ended.   

Let me take to this opportunity to welcome the fact that the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance will officially come into effect on 23 December 2010, now that the requisite number of ratifications has been reached, with Iraq’s signature.


In Colombia, OHCHR has long advocated reparations for victims of human rights abuses regardless of the affiliation of their perpetrators. We support the Government draft law on reparations now before Parliament.  My Office in Colombia steered the process of seeking wide political and social consensus over both the spirit and the letter of this piece of legislation, as well as ensured its consistency with international law.  The draft law provides for an appropriate framework to satisfy the rights of victims, with emphasis on effective remedies, including reparations.  It also includes land restitution mechanisms and special measures addressing the rights of women victims of sexual violence and those of children. 

Whether delivered through institutions of governance or ad hoc mechanisms, justice ensures that a level playing field is restored and thus prevents grievances from festering into endless cycles of violence and retribution.

Promotion of HRTs

Regarding both our preventive approach and our capacity building, let me also describe two innovative initiatives that we have undertaken. The first concerns the development of human rights indicators.  The second refers to the particular kind of assistance that we were able to offer to the Government of Togo as the country prepared and held its potentially violent presidential elections in 2010.



The indicators provide precise and up-to-date data that help States in assessing progress in human rights implementation and capacity-building.  They seek to spell out the essential dimensions of rights enshrined in international human rights instruments, translating each category of rights into specific quantitative measures. At a recent Expert Consultation which focused on the indicators framework, representatives from various organizations, including government agencies, national human rights institutions, non-governmental organizations and the UN, explained how the indicators were being used in a number of countries, including Mexico, Kenya, Brazil, Nepal and Ecuador, to develop and build human rights into new and existing judicial and legislative systems, policies and programs.


I have often stated that peace accords and elections, in and of themselves, provide insufficient guarantees that democracy and citizens’ welfare would be firmly established.  There is a clear need to create credible, independent, and effective institutions of governance to bolster and sustain democracy, as well as to protect human rights.  This is particularly true with regard to providing checks and balances to the executive power, specifically with an effective judiciary and a vigilant civil society.  Although the executive may be willing to yield political space and be more transparent, the lack of professionalism of other government branches and their long history of intimidation and subservience may regrettably prevent indispensable accountability, and negate recourse for past and current abuses.  Public security agencies that often abuse rather than protect civilians compound social despair. 

With these concerns in mind, I was particularly pleased when the Government of Togo requested OHCHR assistance in the run-up and during the 2010 presidential elections with a view to reducing violence and human rights violations.  Such assistance was part of a comprehensive package that involved training and support for State and local authorities, nongovernmental organizations, the media and the security forces.  This was a full-fledged campaign which required a combination of skill-transfer, advocacy, and monitoring. Our effort paid off as the various stakeholders came to understand better what protection of human rights actually entailed and strove to peacefully resolve their political differences.  Youth, wearing tee-shirts calling for peaceful and fair elections, fanned out throughout their communities advocating human rights and democratic principles.  Rather than a “hit-and-run” operation to defuse a potential crisis, ours was a longer-term project which not only contributed successfully to peaceful elections but also aimed at leaving a durable legacy on which trust can be built and solidified.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen once observed that, “Economic unfreedom, in the form of extreme poverty, can make a person a helpless prey in the violation of other kinds of freedom.”

The fight against poverty and exclusion, the struggle to affirm the cathartic and empowering nature of all human rights, including economic, social and cultural rights, is crucial to my mandate.  I was born poor. Although I now stand before you as the incarnation of rights realized, I am acutely aware that for the downtrodden of this world, human rights remain an unfulfilled promise. 

This awareness and a call for action is what I sought to convey when, last September, I addressed the UN review summit on the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals. There, I emphasized that human rights principles, such as equality, participation, accountability and the rule of law, are instrumental for development to take firm root and be both equitable and sustainable.  Freedom and participation, and all other civil and political rights, bolster the common wealth of societies.  In turn, social and economic rights are critical to empower an informed polity to count and be counted, as well as to devise effective development policies.  And gender equality is the biggest development multiplier, known to work everywhere.  In short, development cannot be a project imposed on people, but must be a common journey led by the people themselves. This is why a human rights approach to development is essential: it puts people in control of their own lives, as it puts women in control of their own bodies and fate. I am pleased to report that the outcome document of the summit embraced the centrality of human rights in the pursuit of the MDGs.

This high profile advocacy in the intense spotlight of international events is complemented every day by the actions of my Office on behalf of the excluded and the non-visible that remain below the radar. Perhaps the most under-reported of such initiatives concerns our work with detainees, including the safeguarding of their economic rights.


Access to food is a human right, as is access to water and sanitation. In Cambodia, for example, the food ratio for detainees in 25 prisons across the country significantly increased, thanks to OHCHR’s programs and advocacy.  Prisoners’ access to water for daily drinking, cooking and personal hygiene was improved.  These developments were due to an innovative partnership between OHCHR-Cambodia and the Government.  Prior to this initiative, the more than a thousand detainees in Siem Reap prison, for instance, had to rely on limited underground water alone for drinking, preparing meals, washing and sewage disposal.  The OHCHR-Cambodia’s Prison Reform Support Programme, which includes a civil engineer, worked with Cambodian authorities and installed a rain-water harvesting system in the prison.

The prisoners now have access to additional water supplies, which makes a real difference to their sanitation and living conditions. The system also has the benefit of providing water free of charge, while helping to preserve the underground water resources. This is one of the many examples of the program, since its launch in 2008.   I am grateful for the support of the Swedish Government for this and other initiatives that my office carries out in Cambodia and elsewhere.

Human Rights Council
I will now turn to aspects of our support for human rights mechanisms.  My Office, as you know, is the Secretariat of the Human Rights Council.  The Council’s progress and status will be reviewed next year.   It will focus on the international community’s human rights commitments and re-energize the Council’s determination to fulfill its pledges and responsibilities. 

The Status of the HRC will be reviewed by the UN General Assembly.  At this juncture, it is well worth recalling that the institution-building criteria envisaged by the General Assembly for the Council include universality, impartiality, objectivity, non-selectiveness, transparency, accountability, and a commitment to implement and follow up with decisions.

Universal Periodic Review

Certainly the Council has achieved much.  Of particular note is the HRC’s most innovative feature, the Universal Periodic Review, a process through which the human rights record of all UN Member States is examined at regular intervals.   It is expected that the first cycle of the UPR (of all 192 states) will be completed by the end of next year. The UPR provides an enabling environment and a forum for constructive, non-politicized dialogue and cooperation.

My Office supports this process in a variety of ways.  It helped devise its building blocks.  It compiles two of the three UPR documents relating to the human rights record of states with a view to preparing the terrain for a fact-based discussion and actionable recommendations. In addition, we also organize field-based briefings and UPR training sessions for States that require assistance with preparations for the review.  The implementation of UPR recommendations is the ultimate test for the effectiveness of the UPR and the Human Rights Council as a whole: ensuring that it has a positive impact
on the ground. 

Let me also take this opportunity to note that the review of the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms began last month in Geneva.  The review presents an opportunity to reassert the purpose of this body, that is, to promote and protect all human rights everywhere.  Crucially, we need to close the gap between rhetoric and good intent on the one hand, and measurable results on the other.  To this end, the Council should have at its disposal flexible and effective options and tools to respond both to chronic human rights situations and emergencies.

Dear Colleagues,
I am sure that many of you are committed mentors, eager to foster and nourish new talent in your professions.  So is OHCHR, which actively promotes human rights education as a means of empowering individuals and institutions to take an active role in the realization of human rights in their communities and countries.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights placed great importance on human rights education.  Subsequently, specific provisions have been included in all main human rights instruments.  The 1993 Vienna Conference echoed the recognition of its centrality. To continue on this path of progress, and to promote national action, the international community devoted a dedicated period of ten years to human rights education followed by an open-ended World Programme structured in phases.  The Plan of Action for the current phase (2010-2014) proposes a concrete strategy for implementing human rights education in higher education levels and with specific audiences, including government officials.  This plan was adopted last September by the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Human rights education is a complex process which should facilitate not only the learning of human rights principles and the mechanisms for their protection, but also the acquisition of skills to make human rights a daily practice.  One of the most recent examples of such practical application is a Master’s degree in human rights studies that stems from an agreement which three of Moscow’s universities have signed with OHCHR. Run over four semesters, the Human Rights Master’s Program will give students an opportunity to study abroad for one full semester to research their thesis, broaden their cultural horizons and gain practical experience.

As many of you know, my Office and the International Bar Association joined forces for another educational project and produced the Manual on Human Rights for Judges, Prosecutors and Lawyers, a training resource and reference tool for our profession which is already in use worldwide.    

In concluding, let me underscore that human rights work is not built on quick fixes.  It requires the accumulation of expertise, the patience of persuasion, the passion and endurance of long-haul commitment, the stubbornness of purpose.   Our rewards are often deferred.   Frequently, human rights pursuits entail painstakingly meticulous work, the results of which are often appreciated only over time.  Our job is to sow the seeds, nourish the plant, and monitor its growth. 

Thank you.