27 March 2006

Following is the statement of Louise Arbour, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, which she delivered today at the Palais des Nations at the last meeting of the Commission on Human Rights:

“History was made on the fifteenth of March. For without question the creation of the Human Rights Council was a moment of historical importance.

I wish to pay tribute to the Member States for making this happen and I salute the Secretary-General and the President of the General Assembly for their role in helping to lay the foundations from which to turn into reality our commitment towards a new, stronger inter-governmental body dedicated to the protection of all human rights.

It is important that we situate this institutional reform within its broader context. There has been a quiet revolution in human rights in recent months, which has culminated in the creation of the Council. It has served to return human rights to their rightful place firmly at the centre – indeed, at the very foundations – of the United Nations, as we refocus our work on the implementation of the many rights which this body has done so much to frame.

Let me briefly review a number of the key decisions recently taken.

· Human rights has been acknowledged as one of the three pillars of the United Nations system, in line with our collective realization that the challenges of securing peace, enhancing development and enjoying human rights are inextricably interlinked;
· All member states have endorsed, and taken upon themselves, the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity;
· There has been an explicit reaffirmation of the right to development;
· The system of human rights treaty bodies is to be strengthened;
· For the first time, an explicit intergovernmental mandate for the mainstreaming of human rights has been issued;
· We have seen unambiguous support for the vital role played by human rights education;
· There has been firm support for the rights of women, minorities, indigenous peoples, children, the internally displaced, refugees, and persons with disabilities; and,
· The particular needs of states emerging from conflict, so often facing acute human rights challenges, have been tangibly acknowledged through the recent creation of the Peacebuilding Commission.

And all this before we even point out the important progress made within the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Over the course of the past twelve months, we have sharpened our understanding on how best we can implement the mandate accorded to us. And we have received the support of Member States through your commitment to the doubling of our resources from the regular budget, the first phase of which was so generously authorized late last year by the General Assembly.

So we are, truly, in the midst of a quiet – or even maybe not so quiet - human rights revolution.

But while we can say for sure that the decision taken in New York was one of historical significance, its actual impact on people’s lives is still to be determined. Much will rest on the profound culture shift that must accompany this institutional reform. The protection of human rights will thrive in a rigorous, frank and cooperative environment. Progress cannot be made in an atmosphere of distrust and disrespect and through the pursuit of narrow self-interest.

There are millions of people all over the world, right now, who are looking to the United Nations for protection and redress against the violation of their rights and the deprivation of their freedoms.

It is to them, and to future generations, that the work of the Human Rights Council must be dedicated.

Now I do not intend to discuss in detail today the founding resolution of the Human Rights Council. Much has already been said on that subject and much more will be said in weeks and months to come.

But it is my firm belief that the resolution passed by the General Assembly marks a major stride forward for the United Nations human rights system.

In September last year, all heads of state and government resolved to strengthen the United Nations human rights machinery with the aim of ensuring the effective enjoyment of all human rights by all.

To those who consider the Council imperfect, just as much as to those who view it as a major step forward, I have the same words of caution and of comfort: nothing should be taken for granted. The founding document of the Human Rights Council creates a strong global human rights body. But there is no guarantee that the Council will fully realize the goals for which it was created.

As things stand, the Council is still just a document. It can be criticized or praised only in the abstract. The first opportunity to breathe life into this new institution will come with the elections of its first members, scheduled for the ninth of May. This is a vital opportunity for the United Nations to begin setting the standard for its human rights work in the future. It is an opportunity not to be missed – by candidates and the electorate alike – for it will visibly set the tone and the ethos of this new body.

The Council will convene for the first time on the 19th of June and begin its work. It will be important that during its first sessions the Human Rights Council quickly find a way to deal with the substantive mandate that it has, even as it establishes its working procedures. Its credibility, I would suggest, requires quick action on matters of substance.

In particular, it will have to take urgent interim measures to ensure that there is no protection gap. This will require at the outset taking measures that will enable it to assume and implement fully the mandates, mechanisms, functions and responsibilities inherited from the Commission.

Such steps should relate, in particular, to those mandates that, in normal circumstances, would have had to be renewed by the Commission and the ECOSOC or those mandate-holders whose term of tenure would have expired by the end of July.

The Council will also have to take steps regarding the consideration of all those reports submitted to the sixty-second session of the Commission but which, by virtue of these exceptional circumstances of transition, cannot be dealt with in substance during this assembly. This includes, in particular, those reports emanating from special procedures and from intergovernmental working groups, in order to make sure that there is no disruption in standard-setting activities.

As with the creation of the Council, much has also been said about the demise of the Commission.

It would, however, be a distortion of fact, and a gross disservice to this institution, if we failed on this occasion to celebrate the achievements of the Commission even as we, in full knowledge of its flaws, welcome the arrival of its successor.

It has been repeatedly asserted in the last twelve months, correctly in my view, that the Council must build on the achievements and strengths of the Commission.

Allow me this opportunity to elaborate a little on what I consider to be its core achievements.

First, the Commission has built the framework for the international human rights protection, it has steadily continued to set standards on a wide range of human rights issues. The past 60 years have seen the establishment of a far-reaching, broadly encompassing normative framework in which many rights have been clearly articulated and enshrined as universal legal entitlements.

In its first days, in the immediate aftermath of the devastation wreaked by the Second World War, the Commission drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on the 10th of December 1948. It went on to draft the two other pillars of what has come to be known as the International Bill of Human Rights that are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. These were and are ground breaking human rights instruments, maybe the most famous contribution ever made by the United Nations to the wellbeing of the whole of mankind.

It may not seem so today but the articulation in these documents that the fundamental rights of every individual are central to the foundation of freedom, justice and peace throughout the world was a moment of truly revolutionary importance. In recognizing the inherent dignity of the human person, and in articulating what was necessary for this dignity to be realized and safeguarded, the Commission helped to reposition, quite fundamentally, the individual vis-à-vis the state.

Taken on its own, the creation of the International Bill of Human Rights would stand the test of time as one of humankind’s most vital gifts to itself. But the Commission has gone much further in the formulation of other core human rights treaties and norms. Standards pertaining to women, children, human rights defenders, as well as violations such as genocide, racial discrimination, torture, and the right to development, to name just a few, are now part of the international framework of protected rights and liberties.

This work is ongoing. In 2005, the Commission adopted the basic principles and guidelines on the right to a remedy and reparation for victims of gross violations of international human rights law and serious violations of international humanitarian law, as well as principles for the protection and promotion of human rights through action to combat impunity.

Secondly, the Commission established the system of special procedures, becoming a protector of human rights, in addition to their promoter. Made up of independent experts, special rapporteurs, special representatives of the Secretary-General, special representatives of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Working Groups, these individuals have now come to represent in many ways the frontline human rights troops that we turn to for early warning and protection.

Faced with the need to respond to a growing number of human rights situations around the globe, the Commission, in the years after its creation, broadened its agenda to include the full spectrum of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, including the right to development. Thus thematic mechanisms on the rights to health, to adequate housing, to education, among others, now complement the Commission’s earlier mandates on disappearances, extrajudicial executions and torture.

Taken together with the identification, by the Commission, of other critical human rights concerns including, for example, the welfare of IDPs, and of minorities, the extent of arbitrary detention, and the identification of alarming human rights crises within individual countries – an issue that I shall return to in a moment – the special procedures constitute a body of independent experts who ensure that our collective focus remains on many of the most pressing human rights issues that we face in the world today.

They have given a voice to the often silenced victims of human rights abuses, and they have offered a basis for dialogue with governments on the concrete measures to be taken to enhance human rights protection of those within their charge.

The third achievement of the Commission that I would like today to highlight is its work in considering the situation of human rights in specific countries.

This subject has become a matter of intense, even poisonous, debate in recent years. But we should never forget that for years the Commission was able to demonstrate its relevance to the victims of human rights violations in specific country situations and that it was able to marshal a global consensus in responding to their plight.

The first country situations to be dealt with were the apartheid regime in South Africa and the situation in the Middle East. The first-ever country mandate created was on Chile. Significantly, these early efforts to introduce an implementation dimension to the work of the Commission came forward as a result of the very strong demands by recently decolonized countries in Africa and Asia. The Commission has also, though perhaps not sufficiently frequently in instances that merited such action, been able to convene in emergency session: the situations in East Timor, Kosovo, Palestine, and Rwanda have all been the subject to this kind of scrutiny. Today, the Commission continues to address the human rights situation in specific countries, including by recommending the provision of assistance to Governments through advisory services and technical cooperation in the field of human rights.

Fourthly, the Commission created the first human rights complaints mechanism in the UN system: the so-called "1503 procedure".

This confidential procedure draws the attention of the Commission to allegations of wide-spread patterns of gross human rights violations in any country. Communications may be submitted by individuals, groups or NGOs. An average of 20,000 communications are processed every year under this procedure.

Its importance is twofold.

First, in the 70s and the 80s, it was the only means available for victims of human rights violations to have their situation heard. Secondly, this procedure triggered many of the fact-finding mechanisms of the Commission.

For example, the examination of the situation of human rights in specific countries under the 1503 procedure led to the establishment of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances. Moving recollections of those who witnessed the attendance at the Commission in 1980 by the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo from Argentina are a testament to the power that direct action by victims can play.

Today, the revised 1503 procedure remains the only available procedure that many victims of human rights violations may invoke.

Finally, the Commission created a global forum for dialogue on human rights issues and nurtured a unique close relationship with civil society, allowing for discussion on human rights by senior government officials, victims of human rights abuses, national human rights institutions, United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations.

The vigorous and broad discussions at the Commission have helped to identify emerging and key human rights issues, thus moving the international agenda forward. National institutions and NGOs have provided the Commission with information, through parallel events, as well as oral or written statements, about human rights situations in all regions of the world and they have contributed expertise to the thematic issues on the Commission’s agenda. The robust presence of civil society is a credit to the openness and inclusiveness uniquely displayed by this intergovernmental organization.

These, then, are the achievements that we should today take note of and, tomorrow, build on.

They are not perfect achievements. But at their core, they represent very real strengths on which the future Council can build.

It is a vital task, and in it I offer you my unflagging commitment and dedication and that of all my colleagues in Geneva, in New York and in duty stations throughout the world. It has been a great privilege for all of us to work with you”.
* *** *

For use of the information media; not an official record