Human Rights Council opens thirty-seventh regular session



Date: 2018-02-28

United Nations Secretary-General, High Commissioner for Human Rights, President of the General Assembly and Foreign Minister of Switzerland Address the Council
26 February 2018
The Human Rights Council this morning opened its thirty-seventh regular session, hearing addresses by António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations; Miroslav Lajčàk, President of the seventy-second session of the United Nations General Assembly; Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; and Ignazio Cassis, Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland.

Opening the session, Vojislav Šuc, President of the Human Rights Council, said that 98 dignitaries would participate in the high-level segment of the Human Rights Council, and welcomed 12 delegations from least developed countries and small island States, including those which did not have a permanent representation in Geneva. He also paid tribute to the late Asma Jahangir, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres welcomed the adoption of a resolution by the Security Council demanding a cessation of hostilities throughout Syria for at least 30 days, noting that he expected the resolution to be immediately implemented and sustained. He stressed the importance of ensuring the immediate, safe, unimpeded and sustained delivery of humanitarian aid and services, evacuation of the critically sick and wounded, and the alleviation of the suffering of the Syrian people. Eastern Ghouta could not wait; it was high time to stop that hell on earth, the Secretary-General underlined, reminding all parties of their absolute obligation under international humanitarian and human rights law to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure at all times; efforts to combat terrorism did not supersede those obligations. The Secretary-General singled out the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, noting that they were one of the most discriminated against populations in the world. The Rohingya community desperately needed immediate, life-saving assistance, long-term solutions and justice. The Secretary-General called on the Myanmar Government to ensure unfettered humanitarian access in Rakhine State, and he appealed to the international community to support those who had fled to Bangladesh. 

The Secretary-General paid tribute to the late Asma Jahangir, as a Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council, a great citizen of Pakistan and as a towering representative of the force of civil society. The Secretary-General also commended the work of the outgoing High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, noting that he had shown tremendous courage in highlighting human rights concerns in all regions. 

Miroslav Lajčàk, President of the seventy-second session of the United Nations General Assembly, noted that the current session of the Human Rights Council presented an opportunity to reflect on the body’s role in setting and reinforcing norms. Norms laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights paved the way for the expansion of the international human rights system, including the creation of the Human Rights Council. The Council must not only focus on normative functions. Work on the ground through its relevant mechanisms, such as the Universal Periodic Review process and its Independent Experts, had tangible effects on the ground. Those mechanisms demonstrated that when norms and laws were violated action would be taken. It was necessary to also consider the role of the Council in reinforcing the work of other United Nations bodies. The impact of the Council could be felt across all pillars of the Organization. Particular relevance must be placed on the link between human rights and peace. The United Nations must do more to prevent conflict and human rights played a vital role in prevention. 

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, welcomed the Security Council’s unanimous decision related to a 30-day ceasefire in Syria. However, there was still reason to be cautious as airstrikes continued. The responsibility for the continuation of so much pain worldwide lay with the five permanent members of the Security Council, for as long as the veto had been used to block any unity of action when it was needed the most. France had shown commendable leadership among the permanent five in championing a code of conduct on the use of veto and the United Kingdom joined this initiative backed by over 115 countries. China, Russia and the United States were invited to join these efforts and end the pernicious use of the veto. The High Commissioner warned that oppression had become fashionable again and fundamental freedoms had been in retreat in every region of the world, adding that it was the accumulating unresolved human rights violations that would spark the conflicts that could break this world, not the lack of gross domestic product. 

Ignazio Cassis, Federal Councillor and Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland, noted that Switzerland was committed to peace and prosperity. However, how could Switzerland alone guarantee peace? To build prosperity, stable trading systems and markets for experts were needed. The key to both of those was to have a system based on the rule of law, and not on the rule of the strongest. In such a prosperous society, wars were not necessary. Legal security promoted business and brought prosperity. In formulating universally recognised rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had contributed to strengthening the rule of law. Some of these rights directed the prerequisites – in particular the freedoms of expression, assembly and association, as well as economic freedoms and the right to private property, which guaranteed a prosperous society. Human rights were a cardinal value of Switzerland and part and parcel of its traditions, history, political system and legal order. 


The Human Rights Council will next open its high-level segment during which 27 dignitaries will speak on the first day. The Council today is holding non-stop meetings from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.


Opening Statements

VOJISLAV ŠUC, President of the Human Rights Council, opening the thirty-seventh regular session of the Council, said that 98 dignitaries would participate in the high-level segment of the Human Rights Council this year. This reflected the attachment that States gave to the Human Rights Council in particular, and to the United Nations as a whole. He informed that an agreement had been reached to reduce the panel discussions from three to two hours, with a maximum one hour given to the podium. This extraordinary measure would take immediate effect, beginning with the current session. Mr. Šuc also informed that during the organizational meeting on 12 February, a minute of silence had been pronounced as a tribute to the late Ms. Asma Jahangir from Pakistan, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Mr. Šuc warmly welcomed the 12 delegations from least developed countries and small island States, including those which did not have a permanent representation in Geneva. He informed that their participation had been made possible by the Voluntary Assistance Trust Fund. 

In conclusion, Mr. Šuc stated that it was a privilege for Slovenia to hold the Presidency of the Council, as well as a responsibility to which he was fully committed. He reiterated that a constructive atmosphere and cooperative spirit was essential for the functioning of the Council and he appealed to all participants to commit to these principles. Furthermore, he stressed the importance of the maintenance of a safe space for participants of civil society and human rights institutions, which was in the common interest of the Human Rights Council. 

MIROSLAV LAJČÀK, President of the seventy-second session of the United Nations General Assembly, said the current session of the Human Rights Council presented an opportunity to reflect on the body’s role. First, he turned to the Council’s role in setting and reinforcing norms, noting the upcoming seventieth anniversary of the International Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration was the result of tedious debate and represented a landmark achievement that allowed most people to grow up with universally accepted human rights. The Declaration confirmed that all human beings had the same basic rights that could not be taken away. Norms laid out in the Declaration paved the way for the expansion of the international human rights system, including the creation of the Human Rights Council.

Since its creation in 2006 the Council had built its own normative power. When the Council passed a resolution, when a passionate speech was delivered, and when representatives came together to debate, norms were born and existing ones reinforced. The Council must not only focus on normative functions. Work on the ground through its relevant mechanisms, such as the Universal Periodic Review process and its independent experts, had tangible effects on the ground. These mechanisms demonstrated that when norms and laws were violated action would be taken. It was necessary to also consider the role of the Council in reinforcing the work of other United Nations bodies. The impact of the Council could be felt across all pillars of the Organization. Particular relevance must be placed on the link between human rights and peace. The United Nations must do more to prevent conflict and human rights played a vital role in prevention. Human rights violations were the tremors in the ground that could direct attention before it was too late. To this end, in April a high-level meeting would be held in New York on peacebuilding and sustaining peace.

Clear-cut tasks existed in the short- and long-term to build closer links among United Nations bodies across all three pillars of the Organization’s work. As the Council prepared to address complex issues, all present must remember that people across the world were counting on the Council to work harder and to act for those whose freedom had been deprived. Finally, he commended the passion and humanity with which the High Commissioner for Human Rights had conducted his duties.

ANTÓNIO GUTERRES, United Nations Secretary-General, welcomed the recent adoption of a resolution by the Security Council demanding a cessation of hostilities throughout Syria for at least 30 days. But Security Council resolutions were only meaningful if they were effectively implemented, which was why the Secretary-General expected the resolution to be immediately implemented and sustained, particularly to ensure the immediate, safe, unimpeded and sustained delivery of humanitarian aid and services, evacuation of the critically sick and the wounded, and the alleviation of the suffering of the Syrian people. He stressed that eastern Ghouta could not wait; it was high time to stop that hell on earth. He reminded all parties of their absolute obligation under international humanitarian and human rights law to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure at all times; efforts to combat terrorism did not supersede those obligations.

Reminding of the seventieth anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Secretary-General reminded of the duty of all Governments to protect inalienable rights and freedoms. Whatever the circumstances in society, race, religion, beliefs, social status, all people were equal in their rights. By assuring the primacy of human rights, the international community could prevent conflicts. He congratulated the Human Rights Council for its preventive role in the protection of human rights. Diversity was a source of wealth for all society. But it was plain that the words of the Universal Declaration were not yet matched by facts on the ground. In practice, people all over the world still endured constraints on, or even total denial, of their human rights. Gender inequality remained a pressing issue with untold women and girls facing insecurity, violence and violation of their rights. The world was witnessing a groundswell of xenophobia, racism and intolerance, including anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred. Far right political parties and viewpoints were seeing a resurgence. Refugees and migrants were often denied their rights and unjustly and falsely vilified as threats to the societies they sought to join. The Secretary-General singled out the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, noting that they were one of the most discriminated against populations in the world. Deprived of nationality, they had been subjected to extreme brutality by military forces and others and cast out of their homes and country in a clear example of ethnic cleansing. That was why the Secretary General had taken the initiative to write an official letter to the Security Council about that issue. The Rohingya community desperately needed immediate, life-saving assistance, long-term solutions and justice. He called on the Myanmar Government to ensure unfettered humanitarian access in Rakhine State, and he appealed to the international community to support those who had fled to Bangladesh. 

The Secretary-General stressed that to make human rights a reality for everyone, the international community needed far more determined and coherent action. It needed to invest in human rights and recognized them as values and goals in themselves, rather than allow human rights to be instrumentalized as a political tool. The international community needed to overcome the false dichotomy between human rights and national sovereignty. Human rights and sovereignty went hand in hand. There was no contradiction. An emphasis on human rights lay at the heart of conflict prevention, which had to be the highest priority. The Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review was an essential tool; it subjected every State, with no exceptions, to the scrutiny needed for accountability. It was imperative for the Council and the United Nations as a whole to focus much more on implementation and national follow-up. Human rights had to be weaved into United Nations action at all levels – from analysis to planning, to assessment and accountability for progress. In that endeavour the United Nations supported a vibrant civil society to promote inclusive, accountable and effective public institutions, and it supported victims of international crimes to claim their rights. In conclusion, the Secretary-General paid tribute to the late Asma Jahangir, as a Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council, a great citizen of Pakistan and as a towering representative of the force of civil society. The Secretary-General also commended the work of the outgoing High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, noting that he had shown tremendous courage in highlighting human rights concerns in all regions. 

ZEID RA’AD AL HUSSEIN, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, welcomed the Security Council’s unanimous decision related to a 30-day ceasefire in Syria which had been a result of intense lobbying of the Secretary-General, and applauded Sweden and Kuwait for their leadership in the Security Council on this. However, there was still reason to be cautious as airstrikes had continued this morning. Resolution 2401 had to be viewed against a backdrop of seven years of failure to stop the violence and mass killing. Eastern Ghouta, besieged areas in Syria, Ituri and Kasais in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Taiz in Yemen, Burundi, Northern Rakhine in Myanmar had become some of the most prolific slaughterhouses of humans in recent times because not enough had been done to prevent the rising horrors. Time and again, he and his Office had brought to the attention of the international community violations of human rights which should have served as a trigger for preventive action. Time and again, there had been minimal action. Given this was his last address as High Commissioner at the opening of a March session of the Council, he wished to be blunt. Second to those who were criminally responsible, the responsibility for the continuation of so much pain lay with the five permanent members of the Security Council, for as long as the veto had been used to block any unity of action when it was needed the most. France had shown commendable leadership among the permanent five in championing a code of conduct on the use of veto and the United Kingdom joined this initiative backed by over 115 countries. China, Russia and the United States were invited to join these efforts and end the pernicious use of the veto. 

The High Commissioner noted that some States viewed human rights as a secondary value, far less significant than the growth of Gross Domestic Product. Though human rights were one of the three pillars of the United Nations, they were not treated as the equal of the other two, judging by the size of budget. Human rights were perceived condescendingly as the weak, emotional, Geneva-centred pillar and not serious enough for the hard-core realists in the Security Council. Yet, the most devastating wars of the last hundred years stemmed from a “disregard and contempt for human rights” as quoted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. High Commissioner Zeid further warned that oppression had become fashionable again and fundamental freedoms had been in retreat in every region of the world. Hungary’s Viktor Oran said earlier this month “we do not want our colour…to be mixed in with others”. Young girls in El Salvador were sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment for miscarriages and transgender women in Acheh were punished and humiliated in public, journalists were jailed in large numbers in Turkey and Rohingya dehumanized and slaughtered in their homes, this raised the question on why was so little being done to stop all of it? It was the accumulating unresolved human rights violations that would spark the conflicts that could break this world, not the lack of Gross Domestic Product.

In closing, High Commissioner Zeid noted that in the seventieth anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, human rights should be defended more vigorously than ever before. As he was closing out his term as the High Commissioner for Human Rights, he said it had been the honour of his life to had met many of the human rights defenders, to had worked with them and for them.

IGNAZIO CASSIS, Federal Councillor and Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland, said this year, the world commemorated the seventieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The world had undergone profound changes since 1948, and as such, it was logical to ask the question: was the Declaration still relevant, still needed? Mr. Cassis informed that it was his duty to advocate for human rights in his country. Switzerland was committed to peace and prosperity, and as Minister of Foreign Affairs, he was personally committed to these goals. However, how could Switzerland alone guarantee peace? To build prosperity, stable trading systems and markets for experts were needed. The key to both of these was to have a system based on the rule of law, and not on the rule of the strongest. In such a prosperous society, wars were not necessary. Legal security promoted business and brought prosperity. In formulating universally recognised rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had contributed to strengthening the rule of law. Some of these rights directed the prerequisites – in particular the freedoms of expression, assembly and association, as well as economic freedoms and the right to private property, which guaranteed a prosperous society. The Declaration, concluded Mr. Cassis in response to his own question, thus still had a reason for existence. Switzerland was committed to showing solidary with the world and promoted democracy and peaceful coexistence of peoples. The simple reason for which Switzerland was in favour of the Declaration was because the Declaration was in its own interests: the 1948 Declaration was needed in order to safeguard the interests of Swiss citizens and ensure they lived in a peaceful and prosperous society.

However, the world was witnessing a setback in this respect. The rise of hostile nationalisms was being seen, renewed by new forms of xenophobia and racism. The phenomena of terrorism and violent extremism legitimated the greater need for security. Together, the world sought solutions to guarantee peace, prosperity, and security for all. To ensure that these solutions were truly effective and implemented everywhere throughout the world, the international community had to discuss them and act together. Switzerland proposed two priorities in this respect. First of all, it was committed to ensure better use of the synergies between the three pillars. Preventing human rights violations was a way to prevent the triggering of conflicts. Conflicts were costly. Effective prevention could save billions of dollars. There were also opportunities for synergies between the pillars of human rights and development. The international human rights architecture had to be strengthened. The world was developing new norms and strengthening existing rules. 

The Human Rights Council needed political and material support in order to guarantee these human rights developments. In this respect, the role of the Human Rights Commissioner was crucial, and the world had to ensure that he remained at the core of the world system for human rights. Human rights were a cardinal value of Switzerland and part and parcel of its traditions, history, political system and legal order. As such Switzerland made every effort to ensure that diversity and equal opportunity were not just empty words. Seventy years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Switzerland would make every effort to this effect, with the same visionary and courageous spirit.