Interview: Navanethem Pillay

The UN High Commissioner says policies on human rights are not being fully applied.

idp camp boy kibati dr congo refugee displaced
Pillay surveys environmental damage in Haiti [Marco Dormino/Minustah]

Navanethem Pillay, the newly-appointed UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, is a South African who began her career in Durban as an advocate for political prisoners under apartheid.

She spoke to Al Jazeera about the greatest human rights challenges of our time and how a lack of implementation is halting progress to safeguard these rights.

Al Jazeera: The Universal Declaration was written in 1948; 60 years on, what do you see as the major human rights challenges facing the world?

Pillay: Well, we must recognise that, for all the solemn commitments and legislative advances made in the promotion and protection of international human rights – and these have been considerable – serious implementation gaps remain.

The problem lies in the imperfect implementation of the Universal Declaration, not in its content.

Impunity, armed conflict and authoritarian rule have not been defeated, and regrettably, human rights are at times sidestepped in the name of security. 

Freedom from discrimination on the basis of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status – the promises of the Universal Declaration – remains an elusive goal for many people around the world.

As we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights this year, we must take stock of the fact that racism, discrimination and intolerance are global problems which must be of concern to all. Indeed, they represent some of the greatest human rights challenges of our time.

Rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, which are indispensable to the functioning of civil society, continue to come under sustained attack in all regions of the world.

And there are still too many countries that systematically discriminate against women, despite strong international standards, and despite recognition of the critical role that women play in development, and in fostering peace and security.

We must work for the full implementation of human rights in a way that affects and improves the lives of men, women and children everywhere. We are all entitled, regardless of our race, sex, religion, nationality, property or birth, to the realisation of each and every right set forth in the Universal Declaration. 

In Darfur, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Iraq, Palestine and many more countries there are human rights violations. What is the UN doing about it? How desperate is the situation?

Pillay says sexual violence in Congo is pandemic [OHCHR]

These are four huge, complex and, by and large, very different situations.

Let me concentrate on one of these places – the one where five million people are estimated to have died from conflict-related reasons over the past 12 or so years, and where fighting and gross human rights violations have broken out once again in recent weeks, despite the presence of the world’s largest peace-keeping force.

The eastern part of the DRC is in a desperate state.

Today, as was the case last December, and a decade ago, the gravest threats to durable peace and stability in the Great Lakes region remain the prevailing culture of impunity, and the often illegal and bloody exploitation of natural resources fuelling conflict.

These – interlinked – factors, more than anything else, contribute to the wide range of serious human rights violations that have, and still are, taking place in the DRC, including massive displacement, killings and violence against women.  

The human rights situation in the DRC is of grave concern and continues to be characterised by arbitrary detentions and executions, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, the use of excessive and disproportionate force by the National Congolese Police, widespread sexual violence, interference in the administration of justice as well as intimidation and threats against human rights defenders. 

The scale and brutality of sexual violence in the DRC is beyond definition. All armed groups and forces – Congolese and foreign – have used rape as a weapon of war.

While sexual violence is a phenomenon that sadly exists throughout the world, it has reached pandemic proportions in the DRC for one simple reason: it is permitted.

Impunity is the greatest challenge, and my office continues to work jointly with other UN agencies, the government and civil society to tackle impunity regarding cases of sexual violence. 
You have called for a global conference in April 2009 on racism, xenophobia and intolerance, to examine compliance on standards created at the controversial 2001 World Conference.

How can you ensure the participation of all member nations, after the United States and Israel walked out of the 2001 conference because of perceived anti-Semitism?

There has been much concern expressed about the anti-racism review conference scheduled for April 2009. My starting point in addressing this challenge is to promote participation.

I am prepared to deal with differences among states and to do everything I can to ensure that these differences are addressed in a constructive manner. The process will benefit from active participation by all.

Without that participation, we will not be able to address the differences honestly. Without that participation, the anti-racism debate and agenda will be impoverished.

I do not believe that “all or nothing” is the right approach to affirm one’s principles or to win an argument. 

Nelson Mandela has taught me that, far from being appeasement, coming to terms with other people’s experiences and points of view may serve the interest of justice better than strategies that leave no room for negotiation.

For this reason, I urge those governments that have expressed an intention not to participate in the conference to reconsider, and I will do all in my power to bring everyone to the table.

I hope that we can make this a constructive process that gives new momentum to the struggle against discrimination, xenophobia, intolerance and racism and brings us at least a little closer to, rather than further apart from, an understanding of the sensitivities on all sides.

Source: Al Jazeera