Political consensus urgent to protect human rights, Ban tells opening session of UN council

A view of journalists covering the opening of the twenty-eighth session the Human Rights Council in Geneva. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

New York, 2 March 2015 – The United Nations has the mandates and tools it needs to prevent human rights violations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told delegations gathered in Geneva today for the opening of the current session of the world body’s Human Rights Council, while he warned that the biggest challenge to using these tools is lack of political consensus among Member States.

“I appeal to the Human Rights Council to unite behind early, practical steps to support national actors in promoting and protecting human rights. Early action on human rights helps to strengthen national sovereignty, rather than challenge or resist it,” Mr. Ban said via video message at the opening of the three-day High-Level Segment of the 47-member body’s 28th session.

“The world faces serious violations of human rights, from discrimination and inequality to oppression and violent extremism. Our shared challenge is to do far more to keep these and other abuses from occurring in the first place,” added the Secretary-General, who was joined by the Council’s President, Joachim Rucker, and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.

The Council also heard statements from the President of The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the Prime Minister of Fiji and dignitaries from 20 States who spoke about their concerns regarding the situation in a number of countries around the world and outlined some of the efforts their countries were undertaking in the promotion and protection of human rights.

Mr. Ban called the protection and realization of human rights “intrinsic to the entire agenda of the United Nations” and underscored the role of capacity-building, monitoring and reporting including through the work of the Human Rights Up Front Initiative. “The conflict in Syria offers just one example where early United Nations efforts to address human rights violations might have averted a human and political catastrophe,” he said, emphasizing that Member States must do their part to generate this “much-needed shift” in the way they work.

Also addressing the Council for the first time since taking his post last year, High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said the world must be “completely principled and cunning in its collective attempt to defang” violent extremists.

“For us, international humanitarian law and international human rights law cannot be trifled with or circumvented, but must be fully observed,” Mr. Zeid stressed, saying how even though the UN Charter was established 70 years ago, with alarming regularity, human rights are disregarded, and violated, sometimes to a shocking degree.

States claim exceptional circumstances, he said. “They pick and choose between rights. One Government will thoroughly support women’s human rights and those of the LGBT communities, but will balk at any suggestion that those rights be extended to migrants of irregular status. Another State may observe scrupulously the right to education, but will brutally stamp out opposing political views. A third State comprehensively violates the political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights of its people, while vigorously defending the ideals of human rights before its peers.”

“Some of the evidence may be hidden. But the reality, in far too many countries, of massacres and sexual violence; crushing poverty; the exclusive bestowal of health-care and other vital resources to the wealthy and well-connected; the torture of powerless detainees; the denial of human dignity – these things are known,” he said, adding: “And delegates, they are what truly make up a State’s reputation; together with the real steps – if any taken to prevent abuses and address social inequalities.”

The High-Commissioner said he is “disturbed deeply” by the disregard displayed by several States towards the Council’s independent experts – and also by the reprisals and smear campaigns that are all too frequently exercised against representatives of civil society.

The only real measure of a Government’s worth is not its place in the solemn ballet of grand diplomacy. Rather it is the extent to which it is sensitive to the needs – and protects the rights – of its nationals and other people who fall under its jurisdiction, Mr. Zeid said, calling on Member States to align their actions with the recommendations of the Human Rights Council.

As an inter-governmental body within the UN, the Council is responsible for strengthening the protection of human rights worldwide and for addressing situations of human rights violations and make recommendations on them.

Mr. Zeid commended the work of all staff of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), particularly those who work in situations of daily danger. He expressed dismay to learn that “because of lack of will by Member States,” the UN is not in a position to make adequate provision for support to staff that are injured in high-risk missions, or to the families of staff-members who have been killed in such circumstances.

“Frankly, this is appalling and I appeal to all of you to change it,” he said.

Also addressing the Council, via video message, General Assembly President Sam Kutesa said that Member States bear the primary responsibility to protect their citizens and provide them with internationally agreed upon human rights. It is essential therefore that the Council take this into account when dealing with rights challenges and utilize the Universal Periodic Review mechanism.

“In recent times around the world, we have witnessed an unsettling rise in many forms of intolerance, discrimination and prejudice. These behaviours have culminated in a wide range of negative outcomes; including stereotyping, stigmatization, exclusion, threats and even extreme violence,” he said.

Mr. Kutesa called on the Human Rights Council to focus more on social and economic rights and in particular, the right to development, as these are pivotal to the attainment of an acceptable standard of living in the most economically challenges parts of the world.

“As we formulate a new, transformative development framework this year at the United Nations, we must bear in mind the inextricable link between development and human rights,” he added.