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Protest Movements In Middle East, North Africa Reaffirm Reach Of Human Rights

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Recent events unfolding across the Middle East and North Africa underscored the pressing need to bolster human rights as the third pillar — alongside security and development — of the United Nations, the High Commissioner for Human Rights told the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) Wednesday.

“The protest movements in the Middle East and North Africa have reaffirmed the reach of human rights in areas where repression and a denial of rights once seemed immutable conditions,” Navanethem Pillay said, noting that her Office (OHCHR) had supported the quest for civil, political, economic and social rights, both at the national and international levels.

Ms. Pillay’s briefing on the work of OHCHR over the past year opened the Committee’s consideration of specific human rights questions, as well as the human rights situation in Iran, Myanmar and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which featured the special rapporteurs tasked with investigating those matters.

Stressing that OHCHR sought to address rapidly unfolding developments and throw light on chronic human rights conditions, she said it also pursued a number of thematic priorities in collaboration with United Nations partners and human rights mechanisms. With the inauguration of a country office in Tunisia this year, it now supported 56 human rights field presences. And as multiple human rights crises erupted around the world in 2011, the expertise of its Rapid Response Section was solicited more than ever.

In that context, she said high‑level missions to Tunisia, Egypt and Libya had been deployed to engage with transitional authorities and other counterparts. In July, a mission was sent to Yemen to conduct a preliminary assessment of the human rights situation there. OHCHR also supported independent commissions of inquiry on Côte d’Ivoire, Libya and Syria, where a fact‑finding mission had also been dispatched. “The value of commissions of inquiry is unquestionable as they are a key step toward accountability,” she noted.

Nevertheless, it had become increasingly difficult for OHCHR to keep pace with an expanded roster of additional mandates that sought to respond to fast-moving global events, she said. To cover current additional expenses, she had used a contingency fund that pulled from voluntary contributions, but that had been fully depleted earlier this year because of the missions to Tunisia, Yemen and Libya, for which no funding had been allocated. Indeed, in the present biennium, additional mandates were calculated at a cost of $17.6 million just for the human rights section, but only $1.5 million in additional allocations had been made. “We simply cannot continue at this pace,” she suggested.

She welcomed the General Assembly’s decision to consider ways to make essential resources available in response to urgent and time‑sensitive mandates created by the Human Rights Council, noting that different options being considered included proposals to review mandates and resource requirements immediately following each Council session. However, she also urged support from States to ensure that human rights could truly constitute the Organization’s third pillar and to respond to the legitimate demands of people around the world.

During a lengthy question-and-answer session, several State delegations expressed concerns that the OHCHR concentrated on civil and political rights at the expense of economic, social and cultural rights. Others worried discussions on sexual orientation constituted an attempt to introduce undefined notions that had no legal foundation in any international human rights instrument.

Responding, Ms. Pillay noted one lesson from the Arab Spring was that the people on the street were concerned about poverty, food and employment, as well as democracy and political participation, and she would continue to promote all human rights. Further, new rights were not being created. “We are trying to highlight that all people have the same rights no matter what they look like or where they come from or whether you approve of them or don’t approve of them,” she said, suggesting that greater support for action to address those problems more effectively might result if the focus was on the persons whose rights were violated.

Following Ms. Pillay this morning, Vijay Nambiar, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General, introduced the report on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, which surveys key developments from 26 August 2010 to 4 September 2011 with a special focus on the ongoing political transition following national and state elections. Mr. Nambiar supplemented the report with a briefing on the latest developments of immediate interest to the United Nations.

“These developments are taking place in the context of a level of political activity across the country that was unseen for the past two decades,” he said, pointing to a meeting on 19 August between President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, the recent release of hundreds of political prisoners and critical legislative reforms, including to the Political Parties Registration Law.

He cautioned, however, that if not properly managed, the stresses and expectation inherent to any transition could exacerbate rather than resolve existing problems. “The authorities have a special responsibility to improve dialogue with all political actors; to end conflict and abuses in ethnic areas through peaceful settlements with armed groups; and to release all remaining political prisoners,” he said. “Pledges made must be fulfilled.”

In the afternoon, the Committee also heard from the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, who said upcoming by‑elections would be a key test of how far the Government had progressed in electoral reform. While he welcomed the release of an estimated 200 prisoners of conscience last week, he said there should be no prisoners of conscience remaining in detention at the time of the by‑elections.

Among the wide range of daunting challenges still facing the country, he said there was a critical need to clarify the practices, rules and procedures of the new national legislature. Technical assistance should also be sought from the international community to help reform the judiciary, which was neither independent, nor impartial, and also lacked capacity.

Responding to the presentations, Myanmar’s representative said the new President had set a clear goal to promote political, economic and social development with national reconciliation as one of its ultimate goals. With Myanmar passing through a highly significant transition to democracy smoothly and peacefully, he called for an end to the practice of submitting a country-specific resolution on it.

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