Keynote address by the High Commissioner for
Human Rights, Navi Pillay, Human Rights Day, 10 December 2009

10 December 2009

Vice-Chancellor de la Rey,
Vice-Principal de Beer,
Dean Heyns,
Professor Viljoen,
Distinguished Faculty,
Dear Students,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great privilege to be among you this afternoon and to receive a honorary doctorate from the University of Pretoria.   I wish to convey my warmest greetings to the graduates of the Master’s Degree Programme in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa, now in its 10th year.  The graduates come from many States in Africa. Their achievements make us proud and, as a parent, I too share the joy of their families, friends, and countries.

In the course of my work as a judge and High Commissioner for Human Rights, I meet past graduates of this programme.   I am pleased that they are influencing the advancement of human rights in their work.

Your graduation propitiously falls on Human Rights Day which, every year on the 10th of December, marks the anniversary of the adoption in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This year we dedicate Human Rights Day to end discrimination and embrace diversity, and we call on our partners to join us in efforts with this special focus.

The towering human achievement of the Universal Declaration humbles me and makes me feel profoundly grateful for the great privilege that I have to contribute to the United Nations human rights goals. 

I hope that the path I have chosen together with countless and often anonymous human rights defenders will inspire many of you to take up human rights advocacy and work.   

I am sharing the honor the University of Pretoria bestows upon me with all the women, men, and youth who stood up in the past and continue to stand up against injustice, violence, marginalization and tyranny. 

These activists knew that human rights underpin the aspiration to a world in which every man, woman, and child lives free from hunger and protected from oppression, violence, and discrimination, with the benefits of housing, health care, education, and opportunity.

Yet despite our best efforts in the name and for the sake of human rights, despite guarantees in international and national law, discrimination and inequality continue to affect countless human beings in all regions of the world. 

In too many countries a failure to understand or accommodate diversity and change often leads to ostracism and even violence against groups and individuals deemed to be outsiders, or culturally, or ethnically, or socially, or even biologically inferior.

Racial and ethnic discrimination occur across the planet, and remain one of the most insidious forms of discrimination. Left unchecked, or actively fanned, they can all too easily lead to hatred, violence, and – in the worst cases –escalate to full-blown conflict, crimes against humanity and genocide.   Allow me to take this opportunity to note that the 2001 World Conference against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance in Durban, and its review conference in Geneva last April were called to address these concerns. The latter wrapped up with wide agreement in which 182 States undertook to prevent, prohibit and address all manifestations of racism and intolerance. 

As attacks against non-nationals in South Africa and elsewhere show, the age-old plague of xenophobia is far from being defeated. 

One of the forms of the most widespread and blatant forms of discrimination discussed in the review conference pertains to the condition of women.  Despite significant improvements over the past century, women and girls are still discriminated against to some degree in all societies and to a great degree in many. Every day countless numbers of women are sexually or physically abused. In the vast majority of cases, their tormentors go unpunished, and future abuse is undeterred. Women work two-thirds of the world’s working hours and produce half of the world’s food, yet earn only 10 percent of the world’s income and own less than one percent of the world’s property.  They continue to suffer the worst forms of economic discrimination even though they are a dynamic, productive source of economic development. 

Discrimination is often at the root of poverty and exclusion that, in preserving the privileges of elites, condemns the majority to a dire and hopeless existence.

At the same time, vulnerable minorities in all regions of the world continue to endure serious threats, discrimination and racism, and are frequently excluded from fully taking part in the economic, political, social and cultural life available to the majorities in the countries or societies where they live.

Similar problems face the estimated 370 million indigenous people who make up five percent of the world’s population, but 15 percent of its poorest people. They are often marginalized, deprived of many fundamental rights – including access to land and property – and lack access to basic services.

Discrimination based on religion or belief can be equally destructive for communities.

Attacks against migrants, refugees and other non-nationals stem from bigotry that stigmatizes, vilifies and excludes those who are perceived as outsiders.  This attitude is, at times, fanned through demagogy or even used for sinister political agendas.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

History has proved time and again that, when allowed to take root, discrimination, inequality and intolerance undermine the social and economic cohesion of societies. They sap their resources and squander talent.  They marginalize productive individuals and groups and depress their creativity and initiative. 
We must be particularly vigilant against the intensification of some forms of discrimination rooted in resurgent prejudices and fear, as well as from competition over scarce resources and employment opportunities, particularly during economic downturns such as the current one. 

To counter these attitudes, common strategies are most effectively pursued when anchored in the protection and promotion of universal human rights. No effort should be spared to persuade countries to live up to their international obligations. They must repeal laws and stamp out discriminatory customs, harmful practices and prejudices that negate or undermine the achievement of equality between women and men, among peoples of different origin, different circumstances, different races.  That is an indispensable starting point for the creation of a level playing field.

But, as the U.N. Secretary-General noted, discriminated people are not alone in their struggle for equality: The United Nations stands with them.  The United Nations is committed to defending the rights of all, and particularly the most vulnerable.  That, he said, is our identity and our mission.

Today, dedicated international, regional, and national mechanisms, including the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Human Rights Council with its independent experts, have been put in place to be both the custodians and the monitors of human rights, their promotion and protection. Civil society organizations have growing capacity and influence to watch that States carry out their international obligations.

Distinguished Faculty,

Let me briefly expand on the issue of human rights mechanisms and their work.  In 2005, the world leaders at their Summit created the UN Human Rights Council, an intergovernmental body that replaced the UN Commission on Human Rights, with the mandate of promoting “universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all.” 

The Council began its work in June 2006.  Since then, it has engaged in an innovative process known as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).  The UPR is the Council’s assessment at regular intervals of the human rights record of all UN member states.  It is a review by peers accompanied by their recommendations. We should recognize that this initiative carries a promising potential.  Since the UPR’s inception eighty states, including African countries, have come under review.  Documents pertaining to these reviews are published on our website ( and thus facilitate public participation.
Complementing the work of the Council are (1) the treaty bodies, that is, the custodians of the human rights treaties and their monitoring institutions, and (2) the special procedures’ mandate holders, that is, the thematic and country experts who are appointed by the Human Rights Council and serve as front-line advocates for the victims of both chronic human rights violations and emergencies.    The experts of these two mechanisms have been instrumental in developing jurisprudence, fostering change and promoting protection of human rights.
Civil society organizations also actively contribute to the Council’s work. 

If the Human Rights Council is the premier intergovernmental body for the promotion and the protection of human rights, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, as part of the UN Secretariat, is the leading international advocate and independent champion of human rights.

As the UN Secretary-General noted, since its creation in 1993, the Office of the High Commissioner has grown to become a powerful engine for change.  It has expanded its work dramatically, elevated the profile of human rights all over the world, provided expertise for capacity building to States and within the UN system, and preserved the autonomy of judgement and scope of action that are indispensible to human rights work and advocacy. 

The expansion of our field offices and presences in fifty-six  countries, as well as the increasing and deepening interaction with UN agencies and other crucial partners in government, international organizations, and civil society that my Office has undertaken, are important steps in this direction. 

Allow me to take this opportunity to announce my office’s plan to support the work of the South African Human Rights Commission through a four-pronged project which will begin early next year. The project’s aim is to help implement the Durban process blueprint, to strengthen the capacity of the Commission and its legal services programs, to shore up its ability to counter racism and other forms of discrimination, as well as bolster its efforts to protect the rights of detainees.

Deterring the most flagrant human rights violations through the application of international criminal responsibility has also been a critical component of human rights advocacy.  The International Criminal Court plays a central role in this regard.  The Statute of the Court is a major step forward in that, for the first time, a major multilateral treaty unequivocally recognizes as war crimes, acts committed in non-international armed conflicts.  It is encouraging that an increasing number of states are signing and ratifying this Statute.

Regional mechanisms increasingly are active in the enhancement of human rights.  In this regard, let me note that all too often Africa is presented as the place where human rights violations and conflict occur on an unprecedented scale.  Yet, there is no doubt that the African region has made great strides to advance human rights and respect for diversity.  The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights is one of Africa’s pioneering instruments and a pivotal contribution to the advancement of international human rights. 
Since its establishment seven years ago, the African Union has positioned itself to carry forward the ideals of the African Charter.  The rapid adoption and coming into force of the Protocol on the Rights of Women, as well as the establishment of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights add to the framework for the protection and promotion of human rights in Africa. 

However, in Africa, as elsewhere, it is critical to acknowledge the gap between standard setting and implementation in the face of the formidable challenges posed by conflict, violence, discrimination, ethnic strife, poverty, and lack of resources. And in Africa, as elsewhere, ensuring respect for human dignity is an undertaking that must first start by putting one’s own house in order.

In the final instance, however, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic, and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.  Our collective responsibility is to assist States to fulfil their obligations and hold them to account when they do not.

Although each and every State bears the primary responsibility to achieve and protect human rights for all, I also believe that individuals share in that responsibility.
I am aware that this is a highly demanding task, particularly in Africa where poverty, violence and lack of opportunities and infrastructure pose seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  But let’s not lose sight of the progress in human rights that we have achieved in our continent against these mighty odds.  

Ultimately, we Africans, have the power and the choice to advance the cause of human rights with courage and determination. I count on you, on the younger generation, to realize this vision in full.

I thank you and wish each of you the best of luck in all your future endeavours.