There is no justification ever, for the degrading, the debasing or the exploitation of other human beings

Prince Zeid The Human Rights Council this morning opened its twenty-seventh regular session, hearing an update from the new United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, on the activities of his Office and latest developments in human rights, followed by a general debate. High Commissioner Zeid, in his opening statement, his first to the Council as High Commissioner for Human Rights, said

Mr. President, I thank you for your warm welcome for which I am truly grateful.    Twenty years ago, I was exposed to a cruel, pointless, war.  I was serving with the UN Protection Force in the former Yugoslavia, and learnt then a number of simple lessons. Violence at the extreme is so callous, so sickening and beyond the absurd, the human mind can barely edit into comprehensible thoughts what it sees.  No war is worse than another in this regard; all wars, big and small, reveal factories spewing the same wickedness.  And yet, astonishingly, the authors of the crimes themselves, and their supporting communities, will always believe their actions were somehow necessary, even if they knew they were also wrong.  Indeed, every individual, political party, association, ethnic, sectarian, or national group, or government discriminating and inflicting violence on others, believes that when doing so they are excused, or absolved, by circumstance or history.

Our tragedy, our curse, as human beings, is therefore hauntingly simple: every evil can be rationalised to the point where some logic – resting on a narrow argument usually devoid of context and filled with fear – is expanded deliberately in the mind of the killer, the torturer, the bigot and chauvinist, and becomes for them the entire truth.  It is a perverted truth, of course; so twisted, that up has become down, and the liars believe fanatically in the lie they have created.

Another lesson for me, twenty years ago, was equally clear: there is no justification ever, for the degrading, the debasing or the exploitation of other human beings – on whatever basis: nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age or caste. 

It humbles me to know I am to follow the course that Navi Pillay and her predecessors have mapped out for the Office, working together with the previous Human Rights Commission and now the Council. I first met Navi Pillay many years ago while we were both engaged with the International Criminal Court, and her personal dedication to the Court, together with that of the Secretary-General, will be reflected and extended further by the Office over the next four years, while I am High Commissioner.   

Navi Pillay was one of the greatest senior officials the UN has ever had, and one of the most able, formidable High Commissioners for Human Rights. That she could annoy many Governments – and she did – was clear; but she believed deeply and movingly in the centrality of victims, and of those who are discriminated against. They needed her vocal chords, her lungs and her pen, and she made everyone listen. I pledge to continue along the same path: to be as firm, yet always fair; critical of states when necessary, and full of praise when they deserve it. 

The mandate of my Office encompasses all human rights, for all people. Its priorities span discrimination; the rule of law and ending impunity; poverty; violence; continuing efforts to improve international human rights mechanisms; and widening the democratic space. In recent months, OHCHR’s concerns have been numerous. They have included severe acts of discrimination in many regions; widespread violations of economic and social rights due to failures of governance and other concerns; apparent violations of human rights in the context of counter-terrorism; sexual violence; attacks motivated by stereotypes and hatred of many kinds; over-incarceration; the death penalty, and many other issues. 

OHCHR’s mandate is to ensure that universal human rights norms are upheld, making no distinction between countries, and dealing impartially and forcefully with all civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. Those universal norms are further clarified thanks to the persistent work of the independent, expert-led human rights mechanisms. As the custodians of human rights norms, the Treaty Bodies are uniquely qualified to grapple with challenging issues; theSpecial Rapporteurs are the eyes and ears of this Council. Both are practical sources of expert guidance for national policies, laws and practice, while the Universal Periodic Review is an unprecedented tool to maintain a constant review of human rights developments in all member States.

Like my predecessors, I will give utmost importance to the findings of all these human rights mechanisms. I will seek to ensure that greater priority is given to implementation of recommendations made by the UPR, the Treaty Bodies and Special Procedures, for real impact on human rights on the ground. I will also be focusing on working with my United Nations counterparts for greater integration of these recommendations into their country programmes. Regarding resolution 68/268 on Treaty Body strengthening, the past six months have seen significant follow-up to this landmark document, and I will pay careful attention to its implementation by States and by the Treaty Bodies themselves.

Moreover, I attach great importance to the investigation on Sri Lanka mandated by this Council, on which OHCHR will report later in the session. I encourage the Sri Lankan authorities to cooperate with this process in the interests of justice and reconciliation. I am alarmed at threats currently being levelled against the human rights community in Sri Lanka, as well as prospective victims and witnesses. I also deplore recent incitement and violence against the country’s Muslim and Christian minorities.

Freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly are rights that enable people to share ideas, form new thinking, and join together with others to claim their rights. It is through the exercise of these public freedoms that we make informed, considered and intelligent decisions about our development. To restrict them undermines progress. We must acknowledge the value of civic contribution, build the capacity of marginalised voices, ensure a place at the table for civil society actors, and safeguard their activities – including the activities of those who cooperate with this Council, its Special Procedures and Commissions of Inquiry. I take this opportunity to echo the Secretary-General’s condemnation of acts of reprisal against individuals by reason of their engagement with the United Nations. 

Sri Lanka reiterated its categorical rejection of resolution 25/21 and its call for a comprehensive investigation by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.  Notwithstanding, Sri Lanka continued its own domestic process of reconciliation.  However, even as it persevered on the sensitive path of reconciliation, it was unfortunate that a few countries, fuelled by externally motivated agendas and political and electoral compulsions, refused to acknowledge this and persisted in heaping negative attention.

United Kingdom remained extremely concerned about the human rights situations in Syria and South Sudan.  It condemned atrocities perpetrated by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, and remained concerned about the humanitarian situation in Gaza, where it called on all sides to secure a durable ceasefire.  The United Kingdom also continued to support calls for the Government of Sri Lanka to cooperate with the Council.

United States welcomed former High Commissioner Navi Pillay’s engagement against violations on the ground of sexual orientation and gender identity and in favour of accountability in Sri Lanka.  The United States expressed great concerns about atrocities perpetrated by the  Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant as well as about the situation in South Sudan, and underlined the importance of the work of civil society.    

Human Rights Watch said that one of the major challenges for the new High Commissioner would be to ensure that the United Nations as a whole, including the Human Rights Council, did not let the victims of abuse down as it had in Sri Lanka.  One of the key obstacles preventing the Council from addressing critical situations of abuse was the double standards of its members and that was why preserving the independence of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was crucial.

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