States defensive against High Commissioner's criticism


The Human Rights Council opened its 20th regular session on 18 June 2012. The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Navanethem Pillay, updated the Council on the recent activity and prospective concerns of her office (OHCHR).


The Human Rights Council opened its 20th regular session on 18 June 2012. The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Navanethem Pillay, updated the Council on the recent activity and prospective concerns of her office (OHCHR).

Ms Pillay’s statement focused on the Rio+20 Outcome Document, the treaty body strengthening process, OHCHR resources, and the domestic human rights situations in various countries. Her statements were raised in the context of a general appeal for a ‘human rights focus to be applied to all dimensions of United Nations activity in light of the ‘backdrop of crisis around the globe’. Most States expressed approval for this idea.

However, Ms Pillay’s description of specific human rights concerns in some States, including Canada, Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), drew defensive and hostile responses from their delegates. In the course of the general debate, Ms Pillay was repeatedly accused of working beyond the scope of her mandate and failing to approach the international human rights situation with objectivity and impartiality.  To dispute Ms Pillay’s assessment of the human rights situation in their respective countries, these delegates attempted to deflect attention away from their own States by listing human rights violations in States that had echoed the High Commissioner’s concerns. This gave the opening session a somewhat combative atmosphere, which will hopefully be channelled into productive debate as the session progresses.

Continuing the trend of her previous reports and the increasingly outspoken role of the President of the Council, Ms Pillay expressed regret that reprisals against those who cooperate with UN human rights mechanisms continue. However, she welcomed the attention that the issue has recently received. A more diverse group of States took up her concern about reprisals than in previous sessions; Pakistan (on behalf of the OIC) said that it was important to increase the safety and security of those who cooperate with human rights mechanisms. Chile and Peru also referred to the need to address the issue, and Switzerland declared that it was the responsibility of all countries to ensure that human rights defenders can exercise their rights freely.

In an ongoing effort to ensure attention to human rights violations in all regions of the world, the High Commissioner discussed the human rights situations in Syria, Mali, Eritrea, Somalia, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), Nepal, Hungary, Mexico, Canada, and various Latin American countries. Additionally, she reported on the Deputy High Commissioner’s missions to Guatemala, Barbados, South Sudan, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Tunisia, Lebanon, Chad, Niger, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Regardless, her comments drew angry responses from some States because of delegates’ perceptions of being ‘singled out’.

Though nearly all States affirmed the need for action in Syria and deplored the actions of the Syrian regime, the Syrian delegate described Ms Pillay’s remarks as 'very strange' and 'far from being objective or accurate'. The delegate criticised Ms Pillay for failing to refer to the actions of Al Qaeda, and dismissed her remarks as ‘far from constructive dialogue’ and contradictory to her mandate. At the conclusion of formal proceedings, Syria exercised its right of reply to also condemn the 'hypocrisy' of Qatar, Libya, France, and Canada in criticising Syria while failing to address human rights violations in their own countries. Syria accused other delegates of ‘lying’ in their expressions of sympathy for the victims of the uprising and said that nothing justified the ‘foul language’ used by the High Commissioner in her comments.

Similar resentment about 'hypocrisy' was expressed by Sri Lanka on the ‘ill conceived’ resolution passed on Sri Lanka at the 19th session. The delegate stated that the resolution created mistrust in international processes and was ‘wholly unnecessary’ to resolving Sri Lanka’s human rights challenges.

Surprisingly, Canada also objected to the High Commissioner’s remarks, on the grounds that legislative reform restricting student protests in Quebec did not justify Canada’s consideration alongside States such as Syria and the DRC. The Canadian delegate tartly dismissed Ms Pillay’s comments with reference to various aspects of Canada’s judicial system and respect for fundamental freedoms. She went on to say that 'in a world where Syrians are dying', Ms Pillay had ‘wasted valuable time’ commenting on Canada when she could have been talking about important human rights violations relating to Sri Lanka and Syria.[1] The Sri Lankan delegate, in reply, expressed surprise at Canada’s attempt to deflect attention from its domestic situation, and criticised Canada for drawing unrelated parallels.

Belarus declared that the ‘selectivity’ of OHCHR in raising issues of concern was worrying, and called for the High Commissioner to consider adopting a new approach.

It was notable that a number of States from different regions was willing to criticise the human rights record of others, while reacting forcefully when faced with critical comments from independent sources, such as the High Commissioner and special procedures. Constructive debate in the Council requires willingness by all governments to engage on each human rights situation – including their own – on their merits. While it is to be expected that some governments disagree with the assessment of the High Commissioner or special procedures, their response should be based on a constructive presentation of facts, rather than on an unhelpful comparison of human rights violations occurring in very different contexts.

Following on from the joint statement on Eritrea presented by Somalia at the last session of the Council, the High Commissioner called for Eritrean authorities to cooperate with international human rights mechanisms. This issue was not widely picked up by States, though Denmark (on behalf of the EU) endorsed the High Commissioner's remarks, and Switzerland stated that the Council should react more specifically to the situation.

In relation to her office's increasing involvement in country situations, including requests for reports from the Council and continuing missions of Commissions of Inquiry operating under her office's mandate, Ms Pillay stressed the necessity of balancing competing human rights concerns given the limited resources available to OHCHR. She stated that OHCHR’s mandates and fields of operation could not be extended indefinitely without a review of priorities. India expressed support for this call from the High Commissioner, but stated that it was important for the High Commissioner to regularly share information on budgetary allocations, particularly on special procedures and specific programmes. Pakistan (on behalf of the OIC) said that this should result in a review and rationalisation of the special procedures, noting that ten special procedure mandates are country specific indicating a gradual increase. It suggested that this approach should change to one where country situations are addressed through thematic mandates.

India also raised the issue of special procedures. Noting positively the High Commissioner's call for cooperation between States and special procedures, India added that the special procedures must adhere to the Council-approved Code of Conduct as the ultimate guide to their behaviour, rather than any other internal procedural guidelines.[2]

Ms Pillay also discussed the importance of reinforcing protection of human rights holders at a domestic level in the context of treaty body reform. The strengthening process was launched in 2009 with multi-stakeholder participation, and a report containing stakeholders’ proposals was made available on 22 June 2012. Pakistan (on behalf of the OIC) said that it looked forward to contributing substantively to the intergovernmental process in New York. Poland, Spain, Chile, and Ireland made positive statements anticipating the report and on the importance of the treaty body strengthening process generally. Russia, however, suggested that the role of the OHCHR should be ‘backstopping’ in nature, and should not delve into the ‘substantive work’ of the treaty body process in a way that dictates its agenda. India stressed the importance of ensuring that States are fully involved in the outcome of the strengthening process, contrasting such an approach to the 'fait accompli' that it felt States had been handed when some treaty bodies adopted the new reporting procedure of List of Issues Prior to Reporting. The full involvement of States, the delegation argued, would ensure that treaty bodies were in turn able to elicit the cooperation from States that the system relies on. The role of NGOs in the intergovernmental process was not discussed, despite the severe lack of clarity about how civil society will be able to add its voice to the discussions.

Other issues raised included the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons. Ms Pillay referred to Russian and Ukrainian laws restricting freedom of expression in relation to LGBTI issues. This issue was not widely engaged by State parties, though Denmark (on behalf of the EU), the Czech Republic, Norway, and Switzerland stated that they shared the High Commissioner's concerns.

[1] The High Commissioner had included one sentence on Canada in her remarks, saying ‘Moves to restrict freedom of assembly continue to alarm me, as is the case in the province of Quebec in Canada in the context of students' protests'. 

[2] India did, however, not refer to any specific concerns in relation to the Code of Conduct or its observance by mandate holders.



  • Human rights defenders
  • Reprisals and intimidation
  • Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
  • UN Human Rights Council
  • Barbados
  • Belarus
  • Burundi
  • Canada
  • Chad
  • Chile
  • Congo (Kinshasa)
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Eritrea
  • France
  • Guatemala
  • Hungary
  • India
  • Ireland
  • Lebanon
  • Libya
  • Mali
  • Mexico
  • Nepal
  • Niger
  • North Korea
  • Pakistan
  • Peru
  • Poland
  • Russia
  • Somalia
  • South Sudan
  • Spain
  • Sri Lanka
  • Switzerland
  • Syria
  • Tunisia
  • Ukraine
  • Zimbabwe