Pillay faces a political minefield

Mary Robinson, a former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (HCHR), who faulted countries such as the United States, China and Israel for transgressions of humanitarian law and civil liberties, was forced to retire because of intense lobbying against an extended tenure for her, writes Thalif Deen.

A former president of Ireland, Robinson was an outspoken critic of human rights abuses and challenged Western nations on the legality of the 1999 bombing of former Yugoslavia by Nato which resulted in civilian casualties.

She was succeeded by Louise Arbour, a jurist from Canada, who was an equally vociferous defender of human rights and was refused entry into both North Korea and Burma.

The government of Sri Lanka rejected Arbour’s request for a human rights field office in the capital, Colombo. When she visited Sri Lanka early this year Arbour was asked why she wasn’t visiting Guantanamo Bay, the now-infamous US detention centre for suspected terrorists. And when she met US congressional leaders, they turned the question around: why is she not visiting Burma, which has been roundly criticised by the UN for human rights abuses? And why is she singling out the US?

Navanethem Pillay of South Africa, whose nomination as the new High Commissioner for Human Rights was endorsed by the 192-member general assembly on Monday, is walking into a political minefield—at a time when human rights are being integrated into all activities in the UN system, including socio-economic activities.

She also takes office as the UN commemorates the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the security council is deadlocked over human rights issues in Sudan, Zimbabwe, Burma and Israeli-occupied territories.

Pillay (67) will hold office for four years.
She will be based in Geneva, oversee a staff of more than 1 000, spread across 50 countries, and work with an annual budget of more than $150-million.

Since 2003 Pillay has served as a judge on the International Criminal Court in The Hague and in 1999 was elected Judge President of the Inter­national Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, where she served for eight years.

Palitha Kohona, a former chief of the UN Treaty Section, said the position of high commissioner is one of the most important appointments at the UN. “We are confident that [Pillay] will introduce the necessary balance to ensure that human rights are strengthened and advanced in a practical and effective manner across the globe,” he told IPS.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said Pillay will take up her appointment at a critical moment for human rights protection worldwide, and within the UN in particular. “The UN Security Council has failed to take needed steps to confront human rights abuses in Zimbabwe and Darfur, thousands continue to be subjected to arbitrary detention in the war on terror and states must be urged to implement newly adopted human rights standards relating to enforced disappearances, disability, and cluster munitions.”

Roth said the new high com-missioner must be willing to take on those who abuse human rights—“no matter how powerful they may be”.

“Engaging governments through quiet diplomacy has a place in human rights protection, but experience shows that there is no substitute for strong public advocacy on the part of the high commissioner,” he said.—IPS

Client Media Releases

Eminent scientist recognised for his research in breastfeeding
Supersonic scores another ISP win
M&As create strategic options