Statement of Ms. Navanethem Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Human Rights Council Special Session, Geneva, 27 January 2010

Mr. President,
Distinguished Members of the Human Rights Council,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I want to thank the President and the Members of the Human Rights Council for convening this special session to consider the grave situation of Haiti in the aftermath of the catastrophic earthquake that struck the country on 12 January 2010. The HRC today stands in solidarity with the victims of the disaster.

The Government of Haiti has confirmed 150,000 dead and thousands more buried under the rubble. An even greater number of people have been rendered homeless, without food, water and basic necessities.

The earthquake also robbed the United Nations family of many of its valiant workers. OHCHR has lost two beloved and highly respected colleagues in the tragedy.

We commemorate all those who died and we pay tribute to the survivors who, as they grieve, have also undertaken the monumental tasks of rebuilding. Their bravery, resilience, and mutual solidarity in the face of immense adversity are heartening.

Described as the worst tragedy that the Western Hemisphere has experienced in decades, the earthquake not only exacted a massive toll in lives and livelihoods, but it also destroyed most government buildings, schools, hospitals, national heritage sites, and churches.

The effects were further exacerbated by pre-existing inhuman conditions of poverty, instability and feeble institutions. These resulted from policies such as that of the Duvalier regime which forced people from rural areas and farmers from rice fields to the capital to provide cheap labour for Haiti's elite. The congestion of urban centres has ever since been a cause of abuse and heightened vulnerability to natural disaster and to conflict over scarce jobs and resources. At the same time, living conditions in rural areas remained and continue to be culpably neglected.

I had the opportunity to observe these impoverished circumstances when, two months into my mandate as High Commissioner for Human Rights, I visited Haiti in November 2008 as my first mission. My visit coincided with the aftermath of a series of tropical storms that had wrought death and devastation in the island.

I met many UN colleagues and the representatives of nongovernmental organisations who were carrying out the difficult task of assisting Haiti through its delicate transition. I met Haitians at Cité Soleil who suffered the worst forms of exclusion from the enjoyment of human rights and the benefits of development, as well as activists and ordinary people who were determined to be their own engine for positive change. I wish to salute many Haitian human rights defenders who have perished in the earthquake.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The aid effort is now well underway. Many countries have made generous contributions. More humanitarian workers are deployed every day to help their colleagues on the ground assisting those desperately in need of help.

I welcome the outcome of the meeting in Montreal this week during which donor nations and international organisations pledged to assist Haiti beyond this emergency situation. They also agreed to reconvene in March to assess progress and needs.

Indeed, the level of resources committed must be maintained in the years to come. To sustain effective development policies, bolster good governance, and ameliorate the delivery of, and access to, services including health and education, we must anchor our initiatives in human rights. A human rights approach helps ensure that the root causes of vulnerabilities, in this case poverty and discrimination, are addressed.

Helpful guidance in this domain can be found in the principles on natural disasters and human rights that the Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons elaborated. Drawing from lessons learned in the past, we must prevent and curb those violations that often occur in post-disaster circumstances.

To this end, utmost vigilance should be exerted to protect the most vulnerable, in particular disabled and elderly people, the poor, women, and children who are likely to face stronger risks of dispossession, arbitrary arrest, violence, including sexual violence, and trafficking. I urge all concerned parties to heed UNICEF's call and spare no effort to reunite children with their own families.

There are fears that prisoners, who had escaped from Haiti 's jails, including hardened gang members, may secure weapons and engage in violent criminal activities. Also alarming are reports of summary executions of some of those alleged prisoners carried out by angry mobs. The rule of law must be quickly re-established in the capital and elsewhere.

OHCHR, jointly with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, has dispatched a five-person mission to Haiti to lead and help coordinate the protection efforts of both international and national actors in partnership with the Government of Haiti. They will assess the immediate human rights needs of the population, and help carry out an integrated and all-encompassing disaster and post-disaster response. Crucially, the mission will solicit, collect and share information on situations of concern, and raise awareness among duty bearers and the population about responsibilities, as well as rights, entitlements and sources of assistance.

As the Secretary-General noted we must help Haiti build back better. This also entails re-constructing and strengthening the national human rights protection systems through an effective and independent judiciary and a law enforcement apparatus respectful of human rights. A reliable National Human Rights Institution and a vigilant civil society must be empowered to be active partners in this endeavour.

Our paramount goal must be ensuring that all Haitian people attain their dignity and rights in full. The pursuit of this objective cannot be postponed until more favourable conditions prevail. It must be made part and parcel of our action right now.

Thank you.