Welcome Speech by Ms. Kyung-wha Kang United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Conference on Freedoms of Expression, Association and Peaceful Assembly

Beirut, Lebanon 22 May 2012

Excellencies,
Friends and colleagues

It is a great pleasure and honor for me to welcome all of you to this Conference on my first visit to this beautiful country. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Government of Lebanon for so generously hosting and closely cooperating with our Regional Office for the Middle East, based here in Beirut. This marks the tenth year since the office was established, making it one of the longest-standing regional field presences of OHCHR, and we can only say that Lebanon’s reputation for hospitality is well-deserved. I very much look forward to my meetings with the government authorities and civil society representatives today and tomorrow.

This regional conference on freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly is a very important initiative of the Regional Office, and has been prepared with the full support of OHCHR headquarters in Geneva. These are three fundamental rights without which most human rights cannot be fully enjoyed and properly protected, respected and fulfilled. As you will hear a little later, this conference is the culmination of a multi-year regional programme conducted by our office here, in excellent and fruitful collaboration with the International Labor Organization’s regional Office for Arab states. We hope to see this collaboration continue and for some significant steps forward to be taken in the protection of these rights. Fateh Azzam, head of our Regional Office, will tell you more about this programme shortly.

Friends and Colleagues,

We meet today at a critical time in the history of this important and dynamic region of the world. During the past year or so, we have been witnessing popular revolts and uprisings that have been expressions of deep discontent within the region. Many experts and historians are analyzing the background and reasons for this discontent and it will probably be a while before we come to a full understanding of these historic changes.

What we do note, however, is the popular nature of these revolts, and the participation of wide sectors of the populations including young people, middle class professionals, women, and the poor and marginalized of society. They have been sometimes called “dignity revolts” in their demands for justice, equitable development and freedom. As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights tells us, human rights are about human dignity. Therefore, in short, these revolts should be seen as demands for the respect and protection of all human rights for all people.

A robust and effective national human rights system is the anchor for the protection of human rights, and the objective of OHCHR assistance and work is to help build such systems in the countries where we engage. It is for this reason that we actively encourages dialogue between Governments and civil society that can lead to the creation or development of such a national system. An inclusive framework within which people can engage constructively in the discussion and debate of all policies that affect their lives can assist Governments in ensuring the well-being of their peoples, and at the same time fulfilling their human rights obligations.

Governments have the legal and moral authority and responsibility to provide leadership internally, and on behalf of their people in the sphere of international relationships. This leadership is most effectively exercised in consultation with their civil society, and in full partnership with it.

All components of civil society, including trade unions and syndicates, journalists, development workers, academics and human rights defenders, can contribute to shaping and monitoring policies that are of concern to all. They are living their concerns from day to day, and they are best placed to monitor realities on the ground, suggest solutions, generate innovative initiatives, and constructively participate in the discussion and implementation of solutions. They must be consulted and included in policy decisions, particularly when a state is undergoing major transformational or transitional processes.

For such partnership to be effective, civil society organizations must be able to carry out their activities in an open, safe, and secure environment, without fear of retribution, or curtailment of their activities. Civil society actors must be able to enjoy the freedom to speak freely or to associate with one another in common purpose. And they must not be penalized for criticizing or questioning state policies and processes.

While these freedoms are not absolute and must be exercised in accordance with the law, restrictions must be exceptional and necessary for the protection of society as a whole. States must find an appropriate balance between this duty to protect, and the responsibility to guarantee freedoms.

Collaboration with civil society is not a sign of weakness. It is the way to build a better, more inclusive, society.

This is what this conference is all about. We in the United Nations Human Rights Office stand ready, together with our ILO partners, to facilitate a dialogue between governments and civil societies based on a common denominator – international human rights standards, which apply to all.

Countries represented here today are States Party to most of the core international human rights treaties, and to the Arab Charter on Human Rights. The human rights standards developed by the community of States in those treaties provide us with the necessary guidelines that define freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly. They define the allowable restrictions and the scope of interpretation that can help find the needed balance.

We hope that this Conference will prove to be a lively forum for a frank discussion, and that this may be a concrete step in developing a framework for cooperation between government and civil society in the common endeavor to advance the three rights that are the subject of this Conference.

We are aware of course that it is only a starting point, and I am pleased to offer the assistance and expertise of our offices, here in the Middle East and in Geneva, in future programmes and activities. I should like to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you for accepting our invitation to participate in the discussions and for your willingness to dedicate your expertise to make the event a success.

Thank you for the opportunity to introduce this important event, and I wish you a most successful and fruitful discussion in the next two days.