Human Rights Council opens 18th session with High Commissioner's update


On 12 September, the Human Rights Council (the Council) opened its 18th session with an update by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Navanethem Pillay. In her address, Ms Pillay focused on several key issues, including the ongoing situation in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the food crisis in the Horn of Africa, and terrorism. In the general debate, a large number of States reiterated the High Commissioner’s concerns about the crisis in the Horn of Africa.


On 12 September, the Human Rights Council (the Council) opened its 18th session with an update by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Navanethem Pillay. In her address, Ms Pillay focused on several key issues, including the ongoing situation in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the food crisis in the Horn of Africa, and terrorism. In the general debate, a large number of States reiterated the High Commissioner’s concerns about the crisis in the Horn of Africa. Many States chose to reference the 10th anniversary of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, and Sri Lanka received attention in the wake of Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon sending the report by his Panel of Experts on Sri Lanka to the Human Rights Council.

The Arab Spring remained a prominent topic that was addressed repeatedly in the general debate. Ms Pillay noted that although protests in MENA have resulted in the dawn of a new era in the region, the path to democracy will not be as easy as hoped for. The High Commissioner expressed concern over the ongoing violence in Syria, which according to Ms Pillay, has resulted in an estimated 2,600 deaths. Ms Pillay also stated that OHCHR has been denied access to Syria altogether. The U.S. called on Syria to allow access to the commission of inquiry set up at the Council's 16th special session. Poland (on behalf of the EU) commended OHCHR's response to the situation in MENA, including Syria, and called on the Office to continue to monitor the situation in Bahrain. Austria stated that recent events in MENA have proven that international cooperation is needed on human rights, and that OHCHR has a crucial role to play in this respect. Morocco called on States to help Libya in its rebuilding process including the establishment of democracy and the rule of law, and called on the Council to allow Libya to regain its seat, in wake of the Libyan National Transitional Council’s announcement that it intends to fully incorporate human rights when drafting the country's new constitution.

Several States referred to the violence in the Sudanese province of South Kordofan and the Blue Nile region.  The High Commissioner reiterated her previous call for an international commission of inquiry into the situation, a call supported by the United States, Poland (on behalf of the EU), Italy, Spain, Austria, Norway, Czech Republic, Belgium, and the United Kingdom. Sudan, however, dismissed the need for an international commission of inquiry into South Kordofan, and called on the Council to listen only to well-founded claims in this regard. The US and France called for the mandate of the Independent Expert on Sudan to be extended, while Poland (on behalf of the EU) expressed general support for initiatives aimed at allowing the Council to continue monitoring the situation in both Sudan and South Sudan and to work with both Governments to ensure that they have the capacity to meet their human rights obligations. On the other hand, Egypt (on behalf of the Arab Group) stated that there was no need for international monitoring in Sudan.

With respect to South Sudan, the High Commissioner noted that human rights defenders in the country are at risk, and that a staff member from OHCHR was recently arrested and beaten by South Sudanese police. Along with Poland (on behalf of the EU), France and Austria also made separate calls for a mechanism to monitor the situation in South Sudan. 

Ms Pillay also drew attention to the issue of reprisals against those who cooperate with the UN, its representatives, and mechanisms. She noted that the Secretary-General's report on the matter will be presented at this session, and reiterated his call for States to put an end to this practice and for the Council to undertake investigations into the matter. Several States echoed her call, including Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, the Republic of Korea, and the US, although some limited themselves to referring to human rights defenders who cooperate with the special procedures. Other States picked up the High Commissioner’s specific call on countries to cooperate with the special procedures, including Japan and Paraguay, with India noting that as it once more takes up membership of the Council, it has decided to extend its standing invitations to the special procedures.

Prior to Ms Pillay’s address, the Sri Lankan Minister for Plantation Affairs and Human Rights spoke out about his Government’s efforts in reconstructing the country after the conclusion of the Sri Lankan civil war in May 2009. The Minister claimed his State’s commitment to human rights was second to none and that efforts were being made to promote a more pluralistic society.  The Minister also claimed that since the end of the conflict in 2009, the number of displaced people in the country has been reduced from 290,000 to the current level of 7000. Sri Lanka was also making efforts to reconcile its differences internally, including through the recent release and reintegration of 11,600 ex-convicts, as well as democratisation efforts in both the north and south of the country.

Speaking in the general debate, Sri Lanka dismissed Ms Pillay’s earlier claim that its counter-terror laws were violating human rights. The delegation categorically denied that these laws were designed without respect to human rights and labelled the High Commissioner’s characterisation as ‘misplaced, distorted, and a crass disregard of context’.  Instead, Sri Lanka argued that it has been working to resettle and rebuild the lives of those in conflict-affected areas and that national institutions in place were working effectively to promote and protect human rights.

The report of the panel of the Secretary-General on the situation in Sri Lanka calls for the immediate establishment of an independent international mechanism. Unfortunately States did not refer to this recommendation during the general debate. Instead several States cautioned against foreign interference in Sri Lanka. China praised Sri Lanka for its efforts and warned that interference by external forces would only hinder the reconciliation process in the country. Cuba expressed solidarity with the Sri Lankan government. The Maldives commended Sri Lanka for transitioning from war to peace and trying to heal its divisions after emerging from a long and bloody conflict. Finally, Algeria said that the imposition of an external will on Sri Lanka was not ideal, especially when an internal process was already in place, and that the country needed time and space to allow implemented strategies to bear fruit. It is crucial that, now that the Secretary-General has chosen to transmit the report of the Panel of Experts to the Council, that the Council should address that report and its recommendations. Failure to do so will result in the Council losing a valuable opportunity to follow-up on its 11th special session on Sri Lanka.

The crisis in the Horn of Africa, Ms Pillay said, was a result of a number of circumstances including natural causes but also the failure of governments to meet basic human rights obligations. According to Ms Pillay, the crisis has been exacerbated by the deliberate obstruction of human rights and obstruction of humanitarian work. Ms Pillay called for a focus on long-term solutions to food supply, and for good governance, human rights, rule of law, and international cooperation to be at the heart of efforts made to ensure long-term sustainability.

Egypt (on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement) welcomed the attention to the critical situation in the Horn of Africa and urged OHCHR to sustain its efforts in promoting human rights in that region as well as the rest of the world. Senegal (newly speaking on behalf of the African Group) stated that the African Group has been holding meetings to try and address the food crisis. The US also brought attention to this situation, calling for long-term solutions to prevent shortages from occurring in the future, and pointing out that it was the largest contributor to food and assistance in the Horn of Africa, having pledged over USD 600 million to tackling hunger in the region. Other States, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Qatar, Thailand, and Russia expressed their support in addressing the crisis. Cuba called on States to address the scourge of hunger and for NATO to focus more attention on eradicating hunger than on waging war.

The High Commissioner also used her address to commemorate the victims of 9/11 but also those who have suffered from terrorism globally, and condemned the recent attack on the UN office in Abuja, Nigeria.  However, while Ms Pillay was firm in her denunciation of terrorism, she warned against States using counter-terrorism measures that violate human rights. Ms Pillay pointed in particular  at Sri Lanka, stating that a succession of Sri Lankan Governments have undermined human rights in the country over the past three decades. Similarly, the High Commissioner referred to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan as cases where anti-terrorism measures have resulted in the killing of civilians. Many States also used their statements to condemn terrorism in general including Uruguay, Sri Lanka, Egypt (on behalf of the NAM), Senegal (on behalf of the African Group), Pakistan (on behalf of the OIC), Malaysia, Indonesia, Qatar, Thailand, and Spain.