Combat against discrimination is top priority, UN human rights chief says

5 March 2009 – The United Nations’ top human rights official said today that combating discrimination against women, indigenous people, minorities, migrants and other vulnerable groups was the top priority for her office.

“I wish to underscore once again that discrimination is all too often at the root of other human rights abuses,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said, as she introduced her wide-ranging annual report to the Geneva-based Human Rights Council.

She also drew attention to the impact of the successive food, energy and financial crises, which was being felt “most particularly by those individuals and groups in society who were already marginalized and discriminated against,” particularly migrants.

The High Commissioner told the assembled government delegates that discrimination against women triggers violence which has “reached the proportions of a pandemic.”

“Although at its most brutal in times of war, violence against women often stems from stereotypes, prejudices, and the lack of equality that had condoned such violence all along,” she said. “Rendering justice to the victims is, therefore, not only a moral imperative, but also a legal obligation.”

The report noted some important advances in the international effort to support the rights of indigenous peoples, but added that it was crucial for states to incorporate the recently agreed UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into their national legal and institutional systems.

Summarizing the sections of the report focused on combating impunity and preventing genocide, the High Commissioner spoke of her experience as a judge on international courts, she said that “As a trial judge and the President of the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, I came to know first-hand how the fire of hatred can be stoked to ignite genocide.”

“International justice has come a long way in punishing this heinous crime. We need, however, to better understand how to prevent it from recurring.” Ms. Pillay noted that her office had recently convoked a seminar of world-renowned experts on the prevention of genocide, and said the results of their discussion would be published in the near future.

When States are unwilling or unable to genuinely investigate and prosecute genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, international justice mechanisms must be engaged.”

For this reason, she said, “States should strengthen their cooperation with the International Criminal Court and respect its independence.”

The High Commissioner commended States for the progress so far in the new Human Rights Council system known as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which began last April.

So far, the rights records of 64 States have been reviewed. All 192 UN Member States will pass through the system once every four years.

Ms. Pillay noted that a number of the countries reviewed so far had “firmly pledged to strengthen implementation at the national level, as well as their cooperation with the special procedures,” saying that some had announced an intention to ratify human rights instruments, accept optional procedures, and comply with outstanding reporting obligations.

She suggested that at the end of the first UPR cycle it would be useful to discuss how independent experts could enhance the process.

Ms. Pillay also suggested that in addition to the Special Sessions it holds on emergencies, the Council might consider broadening its attention to chronic human rights conditions.