UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Jerusalem: "I don't do politics, I do law"

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, wrapped up Friday a couple of days visit in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory.

(0Pt = UN terminology, adopted from the 2004 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice on the Wall, which she mentions below).

In a statement to the media, Pillay said “The settlement of Israeli citizens in the occupied Palestinian territory is clearly prohibited under international law. As a result, all State actions in support of the establishment and maintenance of the settlements, including incentives to create them and the establishment of infrastructure to support them, are illegal under international law. They should be stopped altogether. The idea that a partial or temporary halt is a valuable concession in the peace process, to be traded against something else, is turning the law on its head. The annexation of East Jerusalem contravenes customary international law, as confirmed by Security Council and General Assembly resolutions. This has also been recognized by the International Court of Justice. Because of its illegality, the annexation has not been recognized by any State. Under international law, East Jerusalem remains part of the West Bank and is occupied territory. All settlement-related activities, and any legal or administrative decision or practice that directly or indirectly coerce Palestinians to leave East Jerusalem, including evictions, demolitions, forced displacements and cancelation of residence permits on a discriminatory basis, should be halted and restrictions on access to East Jerusalem by other West Bank inhabitants should be lifted…”

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UN Human Rights Commissioner will not seek second term

A spokesman for Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told journalists at a regular bi-weekly briefing in Geneva on Friday that “A short while ago, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour confirmed to the states attending the Human Rights Council here in Geneva that she will not be seeking a second term after her mandate as High Commissioner expires on 30 June. By that time she will have served a full four-year term, and she does not wish to commit herself to do another four years. The procedure for appointing her successor is as follows: The Secretary-General, in consultation with members states will select a suitable candidate, who will then need to be confirmed by the General Assembly”.

Reuters reported that Arbour spoke to journalists at the Palais des Nations in Geneva before the formal announcement was made: ” ‘We have to be out there assisting those whose obligation it is to enforce these rights. This does not make the position of High Commissioner more comfortable, more sheltered from criticism — quite the opposite’, she told journalists before confirming her departure to the 47-member UN Human Rights Council … Arbour’s forthright candour aroused criticism from around the world but she brushed this off as ‘inevitable’. ‘I tend to distinguish between criticisms that have a certain validity to them, especially those expressed in good faith, and those which often don’t have much merit’, she said. ‘I am not leaving my job because of these pressures. On the contrary, I have to resist the temptation to stay on to face them’, she told reporters. ‘It is very much for personal reasons. I am not prepared to make a commitment for another four years of this work. I have a family and find myself working essentially all the time here and travelling’, she said. ‘I’m going home, basically’. Arbour, a former Canadian Supreme Court Justice and chief UN war crimes prosecutor … said “You can’t write off the [UN Human Rights] Council after two years”… This Reuters report is posted here .

Journalists have been asking since the beginning of the week for confirmation of rumors that the High Commissioner was planning to resign.

It is a damned-if-you-do, and damned-if-you-don’t kind of job.

During the debate in the Human Rights Council on Thursday, the representative of Egypt said with reproach that “the people of Palestine had recently been subjected to a new Israeli aggression that went far beyond all previous Israeli practices. Meanwhile, the civilized world was standing still and watching. Such inaction implied that it was acceptable to kill all people, as long as they were Palestinians.  Egypt wondered whether the Palestinian people had the right to enjoy the universality of human rights. Most had even requested the victims to apologise to the aggressor.  Could those crude rockets be used as an excuse for bombardments and the massive killings the Palestinians were suffering from? There was no objective balance. What would have happened if it had been the Palestinians that had came with a threat of a Holocaust against Israel. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had been often called to follow objectively the handling of the Palestinian case. The High Commissioner had been completely silent for six days, during which hundreds of Palestinians had been killed, and later she had unequivocally emphasized Israel’s right to self-defence. The High Commissioner was asked for the reason behind strongly condemning the actions of the occupied and why she had said that those rockets were a clear violation of international humanitarian law; while Israeli atrocities were merely a ‘disproportionate use of force’. It would be appreciated if the High Commissioner could explain if her mandate included making political and legal judgement with regard to self defence”.

In her remarks to Thursday’s session of the HR Council, a UN press release said, Arbour “echoed the concern expressed by the Secretary-General on the magnitude of the violence that had been taking place in southern Israel and Gaza where many civilians continued to die in attacks and counter-attacks.  The protection of human rights, and in particular of civilians’ lives, could not await the outcome of a political process. The international community must step up pressure on both sides to uphold their obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law, and must ensure that failure to do so was dealt with appropriately.

“On the issue of Palestinian pregnant women giving birth at Israeli checkpoints, while there was a decrease in their number during the reporting period, the restrictions on mobility and rising poverty in the Occupied Palestinian Territory resulted in limited and unpredictable access to health care for pregnant Palestinian women…

“Ms. Arbour said she was painfully aware that since the end of February violence had erupted again, killing at least 120 Palestinians and three Israelis. She was deeply alarmed about the death of the civilians. She condemned the rocket attacks by Palestinian militants against civilian targets, as well as the Israel Defence Force’s
disproportionate use of force. She urged all parties to conduct law-based, independent, transparent and accessible investigations into the killings of civilians, to make the findings public and to hold any perpetrators accountable. All human rights were equal for all human beings and no party could claim that, in defending its own population,
it was allowed to disavow the rights of others”, the UN press release said.

10 December is Human Rights Day

It was on 10 December 1948 that the UN General Assembly adopted, after lengthy negotiations, in which the American then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was a leading figure, a remarkable document on basic human rights — the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The drafting of this document, in the immediate aftermath of World War II, took two years of negotiations.

Eleanor Roosevelt - UN Photo

Many if not most of its tenets are still not implemented today.

But, as the UN’s Human Rights website says, in various places, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was “one of the first major achievements of the United Nations”, and it “inspired more than 60 human rights instruments which together constitute an international standard of human rights” — in addition, the UN Human Rights website asserts, the Universal Declaration has the “general consent” of UN Member States.

The original English-language version of the Universal Declaration is here.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, has put a press statement to mark the occasion, from which we will excerpt the following:

“The Universal Declaration and its core values – inherent human dignity, justice, non-discrimination, equality, fairness and universality – apply to everyone, everywhere, always”

In all parts of the world, people and groups and Governments have tried to transform the tenets of this Declaration into reality, Arbour said, and “Many have died in the pursuit of these ideals”.

She added that “Today is also the day to reflect upon our individual and collective failures to stand up against violence, racism, xenophobia, torture, repression of unpopular views and injustices of all sorts”.

Apparently, today’s Human Rights Day will see the launch of what Arbour said would be a “year-long campaign leading to the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.

And, the High Commissioner said, “In the course of this year, unprecedented efforts must be made to ensure that every person in the world can rely on just laws for his or her protection”.

The preamble of the UN GA resolution adopting the Universal Declaration said, in ringing words, that “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people“.

It also states that “it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law“, and that “it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations“.

And, it says, “the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom”.

The General Assembly, in its resolution, said that the Universal Declaration is “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction”.  

Need we say more?

In the tradition of examining voting records, it is interesting to look at the vote of the then-58-member UN General Assembly which, meeting at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (in UNGA Resolution 217 A(III) of 10 December 1948) as follows: 48 states cast a yes vote, eight countries abstained, and two members were reportedly not present for the vote [this is usually done deliberately, to avoid taking a position].

Those UN Member States who voted YES were: Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Burma, Canada, Chile, China,Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Denmark, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Ethiopia, France, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, Iceland, India, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Liberia, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Siam (Thailand), Sweden, Syria, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay, Venezuela.

Those Member States who abstained were: Byelorussian SSR, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Ukrainian SSR, Union of South Africa, USSR, Yugoslavia.