United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour today described poverty as the “most serious, invidious and widespread” human rights violation confronting the world, while calling on all States to keep laws at the forefront of their efforts to fight terrorism, highlighting in particular concerns over the use of torture.
Ms. Arbour, who’s remarks were delivered in a statement to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, spotlighted concerns in specific countries, ranging from reports of “dire conditions in labour camps” in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to refusal by Uzbekistan to allow the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to investigate last year’s killings in Andijan in the east of the country.
“Poverty continues to be the most serious, invidious and widespread human rights violation that we must confront,” she said. “For it is poverty and underdevelopment – both in cause and effect – that exacerbate abuse, neglect and discrimination, denying millions the enjoyment of their civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, and ultimately their right to development.”
Discrimination is also another “widespread source of disempowerment,” she said, warning that in some parts of the world certain instances of this may be on the rise.
“Racial discrimination is also ever present, and in some regions may even be growing, fuelled by fear of terrorism, or anxiety over competition for employment. Those fears are easily manipulated with results often difficult to predict or control.”
Contemporary terrorism has raised many questions, Ms. Arbour said, including whether States are losing their monopoly over the use of overwhelming force and if so, whether existing laws must “yield to this new reality,” but she stressed it was crucial for the authorities to put the law at the forefront of their anti-terror efforts.
“It is vital that at all times governments anchor in law their response to terrorism,” she said, voicing particular concern about the “increasing challenge to the absolute prohibition on torture that has emerged in the context of counter-terrorism activities.”
“International law requires that the prohibition of torture be ensured by active measures: in addition to not engaging in acts of torture themselves, States have a positive obligation to protect individuals from exposure to torture,” she said. “No cogent argument, whether normative or empirical, has been advanced to support a departure from the torture prohibition in the fight against terrorism.”
In her report to the Council, which started its inaugural session on Monday, Ms. Arbour also highlighted that OHCHR’s presence in the field was a “vital part” of its mandate, adding that the willingness of governments to include the Office in their human rights efforts, showed their “serious commitment to the realization of rights.” In this regard, she mentioned OHCHR’s presence in Nepal, Uganda, Guatemala, Cambodia and Colombia.
Equally important said Ms. Arbour was the access granted to experts and other “special procedures mandate holders,” because she said their monitoring, investigating and reporting were the “trusted eyes and ears of the international human rights community.”
In contrast to this, “closed door policies” by governments were a source of “grave concern” because “without proper assessment and cooperation, the international community’s ability to render effective assistance is dramatically curtailed and human rights violations remain unaddressed,” she said.
In this context, she voiced regret that her Office was unable to assess the facts related to “the killings of possibly several hundred persons” in May 2005 by Uzbek military and security forces in the city of Andijan, in eastern Uzbekistan. She noted that the Government refused to allow access to the country and also monitoring of the trials of those it arrested.
She raised similar access constraints regarding the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, highlighting reports from refugees, who have escaped the country, describing “dire conditions in labour camps, grave food shortages and a lack of the most basic freedoms, such as freedom of expression, religion and assembly.”
Turning to Iraq, Ms. Arbour said she hoped the newly appointed Government would take the “necessary measures to ensure the protection of human rights and full respect for the rule of law.”
In Myanmar, she said the “marked worsening of the humanitarian situation” was a cause for “mounting international concern” and she called attention to the situation in the east of the country, where intensified military operations in recent months have led to the “forcible eviction and mass displacement of thousands of civilians.”
She spoke too of the “unspeakable suffering and loss of life” in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and said only a political solution would stop the bloodshed.
Regarding Africa, Ms. Arbour urged the Government of Sudan to seek the assistance of UN peacekeepers to help halt the killings in the troubled Darfur region, and she said that Somalia “can no longer remain the neglected crisis” where violence, displacement and chaos were exposing civilians to “massive suffering.”
After delivering her comprehensive report to the Council, representatives from various Member States and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) held discussions on it involving the High Commissioner.