Statement by Ms. Navanethem Pillay: The role of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the task of the UN to promote and protect human rights in the world

Reykjavik, 16 June 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to be here with you today on the very eve of Iceland’s National Day.  I wish to express my best wishes to all Icelanders as they celebrate this anniversary tomorrow.   I also wish to warmly thank the organisers of this lecture for inviting me to speak about the role of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the task of the UN to promote and protect human rights in the world.

The UN General Assembly, under resolution 48/141, created the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in 1993.  In the ensuing 17 years, the scope and reach of OHCHR strides the world.  A constant and central element of OHCHR’s mandate has been and continues to be our support for States and other stakeholders in the implementation of the very substantial body of international human rights law which has emerged since 1948. My Office provides expert advice on the interpretation and application of the core UN human rights instruments and specialised knowledge of the working methods of the different human rights mechanisms.

We play a crucial role in safeguarding the integrity and mutual reinforcement of the three pillars of the United Nations, that is, peace and security, human rights, and development.  Indeed, the language of human rights breathes life into the relation between fundamental freedoms and social justice, and the connection of both these elements with peace and security. 

The centrality of human rights in the United Nations system manifests itself in two fundamental ways: in standard setting, and institution building. 

Today, we can affirm with certainty that no vital set of rights is overlooked, and no affected constituency is neglected in the comprehensive international human rights legal edifice for which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights broke ground six decades ago. 

The protective canvas of human rights treaties recognizes the natural and social bonds of human destiny everywhere, that is, our kinship in rights.  It empowers all of us to claim our entitlement to a life in dignity, our right to count and be counted irrespective of our ancestry, gender, race, social status and religion.

These internationally agreed standards require effective implementation at the national level.  It is the responsibility of States to ensure that all rights are enjoyed by all on the ground, where it matters the most.  In this endeavour, they are assisted by the human rights treaty bodies, that is, the mechanisms that are the custodians of human rights conventions, and the repositories and monitors of the law and of its applications.   They are not only States’ indispensible interlocutors, but also sources of jurisprudence. 

In this regard, I congratulate you on the publication of the comprehensive textbook on “The United Nations Human Rights Treaty Bodies – Principles, Application and Impact on Icelandic Law”. I take this opportunity to expand briefly on the topic of treaties and treaty bodies which has inspired the University of Iceland’s scholarship, and then illustrate how the United Nations institutions as a whole promote and protect human rights.

At the outset, let me say that my Office ensures that outcomes and recommendations of international human rights mechanisms, including the treaty bodies, are fully incorporated in its overall priorities and programme of work.  This is also reflected in OHCHR’s engagement at the country level. I will come back to this point.

When the first treaty body, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, was established more than 40 years ago, nobody could have anticipated the growth and spread of such a comprehensive system of treaties for international human rights protection overseen by nine committees of independent treaty body experts.  Their jurisprudence covers all aspects of human rights from civil and political rights, to economic, social and cultural rights and-- most recently-- the rights of people with disabilities.  Moreover, almost all human rights conventions are bolstered by optional protocols or contain provisions which enable consideration of complaints that can be directly lodged by individuals. This body of law keeps expanding.  

We are only two ratifications away from the entry into force of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.  Once in effect, this treaty will establish its own monitoring body, which will become the tenth of the system.

The Optional Protocol to the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights opened for signature by States in September last year and has already attracted 32 signatures.  This protocol reaffirms the equal importance of all human rights and recognizes that political and civil rights go hand in hand with economic, social and cultural rights. It establishes an important mechanism to expose abuses that are typically linked to poverty, discrimination, and neglect. Victims did not have any mechanism to report violations. Now they have one.

Furthermore, since last December, States have been discussing the possible draft of an Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which would envisage a mechanism for receiving individual complaints, as other peer mechanisms in the system already do.

It is clear that human rights treaties have gained widespread acceptance, as States designed, acceded to and ratified more and more treaties. At present, all States have ratified at least one, and 80 percent of States have ratified four or more, of the nine core international human rights treaties.

Monitoring and collecting information on human rights implementation is necessary for governments to plan and apply rights-based policies and programmes, such as national human rights action plans, which offer protection to rights-holders at the domestic level.  Indeed, treaty bodies can be seen as two-way conveyor belts of actionable information: from the international to the national level, and vice versa.

Consequently, and through their relationships with governments and civil society, treaty bodies have contributed to fundamental reforms in many national practices, policies and legislation. 

For example, they have been instrumental in criminalising domestic violence; in creating legal remedies to claim economic and social rights; in abolishing corporal punishment; in outlawing the recruitment of people under the age of 18 into the military; and in prohibiting discrimination. These hard-won improvements have benefitted millions in many States.

The extraordinary growth and workload of the treaty body system mean that we have to urgently address how to ensure their coherence, and proper management. I have therefore called upon all concerned parties in government and elsewhere to initiate a process of reflection on how to streamline and strengthen the treaty body system.

Dear Colleagues,

The steady affirmation of human rights would not have been possible without the dedication of the many men and women who devoted their lives and work to these ideals.  But, the best human achievements cannot last without institutions designed to support them.  The creation of institutions, such as the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, a mechanism that embodied the vision and struggle of human rights advocates, represented another triumph of our times and bestowed an enduring legacy on future generations. 

In time, however, it became apparent that the Commission on Human Rights had lost its impetus and drive for ground breaking and pace setting jurisprudence.  As a result, its credibility suffered, and the rationale for its continuing existence weakened.  Appeals to “mend not end” the Commission grew progressively less convincing. It took great efforts on the part of UN Member States and civil society to dismantle such a venerable institution and replace it with a successor entity.  The die was cast at the World Summit in 2005 with the creation of the Human Rights Council, which became operational in June 2006. 

As we speak, the Council is holding its 14th session.  It has also convened 13 special sessions, both country-specific and thematic in nature, to respond to urgent human rights crises.    Virtually a standing body, the Council is empowered to employ all the tools at its disposal, including the input of independent experts of treaty bodies, as well as the Council’s own Special Procedure mandate holders, numbering 37 to date, and to enlist the help of those in civil society and the human rights machinery that can contribute their knowledge, wisdom and experience. 

Crucially, the Council has put in place the Universal Periodic Review, a process that scrutinizes the human rights records of all 192 UN Member States every four years.  To date, 127 States have gone through the UPR.  The first round of reviews will be complete by the end of 2011. At that point there will be a yardstick available, against which we will be able to consistently and accurately measure and monitor the implementation of recommendations, and identify priorities and design remedies.  To this end, it would be important to streamline, synthesize, and clarify the UPR’s numerous recommendations.  This proliferation may engender the perverse effect of blurring priorities rather than enhancing protection.  

The Council will undergo a mandatory review process next year.  This opportunity should be seized to devise ways for generating greater synergy among the recommendations of the UPR, special procedures and treaty bodies.  This will help governments to optimize efforts towards implementation of their obligations under international human rights treaties and address the concerns of both independent experts and of their peers.  

Ladies and Gentlemen,

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, 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. 

OHCHR’s mandate and its institutional modus operandi entail direct engagement with various stakeholders – first and foremost with UN Member States.

Over the next biennium my Office has identified six specific challenges and priorities.  Of these, one relates to strengthening the effectiveness of the wider human rights system, especially the Human Rights Council, treaty bodies, special procedures and the Universal Periodic Review mechanism.  The remaining five reflect age-old human rights challenges—impunity, discrimination, conflict and poverty—as well as one more contemporary, emerging challenge—that posed by unprecedented levels of migration in a globalized world. These thematic priorities have been integrated into the work of all parts of the Office—from the field to headquarters. They will help us to better organise our interventions and better measure our impact.

Indeed, giving practical effect to these priorities is only possible through my Office’s engagement with the human rights mechanisms, its relationship with the wider UN community, governments, and civil society, as well as through its programmes in the field.

Let me expand on this latter point.  The Office took the strategic decision of implementing an ‘out of headquarters’ approach to its advocacy by engaging national counterparts in loco.  

Today, we are present in 56 countries in all regions of the world.  There are four types of such presences: regional offices, country offices, human rights components in peacekeeping missions, and human rights advisers to various United Nations Country Teams.

OHCHR field presences carry out various activities depending on their specific mandates.  Many of our field presences are engaged in regular monitoring and public reporting on human rights developments.  Most provide advisory services and are engaged in technical cooperation programmes, including legislative reform where domestic legislation and practice fall short of recognized international standards.

A key component of our work in different countries is supporting National Human Rights Institutions and ombudsman organisations.  For those of you who are not yet familiar with the world of NHRIs, let me clarify that these are official bodies that work independently from governments to promote and protect human rights at the national level.  Today, there are more than 100 such institutions worldwide.  We strive to help them be compliant with the “Paris Principles,” that is, the main normative source for these bodies approved by the UN General Assembly in 1993. 

These principles establish the minimum standards that NHRIs should comply with to function effectively.  They include independence, pluralism, a broad mandate to protect and promote human rights, as well as constructive interaction with civil society and the international human rights system.  While I am in Iceland, I encourage its parliamentary ombudsman to apply for certification of its compliance with the “Paris Principles”.  
OHCHR also assists with judicial reform, capacity-building, and human rights education and training.  We are equipped with a rapid response capacity and can—and routinely do—deploy missions in emergencies situations.

Developing partnerships with all stakeholders is a key component of our operations.  Our interlocutors in civil society also play an important role in reinforcing human rights mechanisms and scrutinizing government action or omissions. Naturally, our activities both in the field and at headquarters are conducted in close cooperation with all entities in the UN system. 

Within the UN system, we seek to mainstream human rights so that these rights permeate and inform a vast array of UN policies and approaches on peace, development, rule of law, and humanitarian assistance.  Indeed, this is one area where further investment of OHCHR expertise and resources will be called for in the years to come.

OHCHR is the lead organisation in the UN system in transitional justice activities. We support human rights-based approaches to transitional justice, comprising a broad range of both judicial and non-judicial processes.  Ultimately, the aim of transitional justice is to protect and restore the dignity of the large numbers of individuals whose rights have been seriously violated.

With the wide range of OHCHR’s activities we can more readily strive for practical cooperation leading to the creation of national systems which promote human rights and provide protection and recourse for victims of human rights violations.

We are well aware that in a world of increasingly shrinking resources and compassion-fatigue, utmost clarity in conceptualization, excellence in action and unimpeachable results are indispensable to our continued success.

To conclude, let me restate that our efforts are aimed at making progress on all human rights fronts and ensuring that all human rights mechanisms move as one in this direction while simultaneously preserving their independence, specificity and autonomy of action.

It is my hope that in pursuit, of this goal, we will be able to have the contribution, initiatives and ideas of students like you.

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