Press briefing notes on Iran, Sri Lanka and the 20th anniversary event in New York

Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Rupert Colville
Location: Geneva
Date: 20 September 2013
1) Iran
2) Sri Lanka
3) 20th anniversary event in New York


The High Commissioner for Human Rights warmly welcomes the release earlier this week of Ms. Nasrin Sotoudeh, and 11 other political prisoners including a number of women’s rights activists, political activists and journalists.

Ms. Sotoudeh, an internationally recognised human rights activist and recipient of the 2012 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, was released on 18 September, after serving half of a six-year sentence, imposed on charges of “acting against national security,” not wearing hejab (Islamic dress) during a videotaped message, propaganda against the system, and membership of the “Centre for Human Rights Defenders.” She was also given a 10-year ban on exercising her profession as a lawyer. The Secretary-General, the High Commissioner and a number of independent UN experts, known as Special Procedures, have made a succession of diplomatic and public representations to the Government of Iran on her behalf.

Activists like Nasrin Sotoudeh can make a major contribution to improving the protection of human rights in Iran, and we urge the Government to build on this positive step by creating space for human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists by allowing them to exercise their professions without harassment or sanctions by the state. We also call upon the Government to remove any restrictions placed on Ms. Sotoudeh’s travel and to rescind the ban on her practicing as a lawyer.

The High Commissioner also welcomes the recent news that the death sentence imposed on the Iranian blogger Mr. Saeed Malekpour has been overturned and encourages the Government to release all those held for exercising their legitimate rights to freedom of expression and association.


As you may recall, in the High Commissioner’s statement at the end of her mission to Sri Lanka on 31 August, she mentioned the unfortunate fact that at least three Government Ministers had joined in an extraordinary array of distortion and abuse during her visit. Unfortunately this practice has continued.

A week ago, on 12 September, OHCHR sent a formal complaint to the Government of Sri Lanka concerning the widely reported comments attributed to the Secretary of Defence that, during her meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the High Commissioner requested the removal of the statue of Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister from Colombo’s Independence Square.

The letter from OHCHR to the Sri Lankan Government requested an immediate retraction and public correction of this misinformation which has – not surprisingly – aroused much disquiet in Sri Lanka.

Since neither a retraction nor a correction have been forthcoming, we are today making public what was said, and not said, about Independence Square during the visit.

Firstly, we categorically deny that the High Commissioner ever uttered a single word about the statue of Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake at any point during her visit to Sri Lanka, let alone asked the President to remove it. This claim is without a shred of truth.

Secondly, there has been a further distortion concerning comments the High Commissioner made to the President concerning a flag in Independence Square. The High Commissioner discussed with the President her concerns with rising inter-communal tensions and incitement to violence on the basis of religion in Sri Lanka. In this context, she asked why the only flag flying, other than the national flag, in such a symbolic location was that of one religious community, and suggested it might be more inclusive to fly only the national flag which is a symbol that unites the nation, no matter who they are or what religion they adhere to. At no time did she request any flag to be removed.

We consider it deeply regrettable that government officials and other commentators continue what appears to be a coordinated campaign of disinformation in an attempt to discredit the High Commissioner or to distract from the core messages of her visit.

The High Commissioner will be updating the Human Rights Council on her visit and progress on accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka on 25 September.


OHCHR, with the support of the Austrian government, is organizing a high-level 20th anniversary event on September 25 in New York to discuss achievements, shortcomings and next steps on human rights.

High Commissioner Navi Pillay and President Heinz Fischer of Austria will co-host the event in New York, where some 130 Heads of State are expected to gather for the opening week of the General Assembly. Two previous High Commissioners – Louise Arbour and Mary Robinson – will be panellists leading the discussion on institutional and political obstacles to progress on human rights, and setting out a vision for the future of human rights action. The organizers are expecting Heads of Government from across the world to participate in the discussion.

The New York event is part of a series of 20th anniversary activities to celebrate the 1993 World Conference on human rights in Vienna which, among other important achievements, resulted in the creation of the UN Human Rights Office.


For further information and media requests, please contact Rupert Colville (+41 22 917 9767 or + 41 79 506 1088 / or Cécile Pouilly (+41 22 917 9310 or +41 79 618 3430 /

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