OHCHR’s Damning Silence: It needs a new approach to speak out
By – Suhas Chakma, Director, Asian Centre for Human Rights
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is facing a crisis of its own making. In its website, the OHCHR states “As the principal United Nations office mandated to promote and protect human rights for all, the OHCHR leads global human rights efforts speaks out objectively in the face of human rights violations worldwide”. Instead of speaking out, it has shown a preference for silence.
The position of the OHCHR sits uneasily with that of the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon who once again reiterated on 9 March 2010 his intension to establish an expert panel to advise him on “setting the broad parameters and standards on the way ahead on establishing accountability” for alleged human rights violations in Sri Lanka during the conflict between the government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This is welcome.
In contrast, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay has failed to adequately address grave human rights violations in Sri Lanka, not least in the final days of the war with the LTTE. While Special Procedures mandate holders issued various statements, High Commissioner Navi Pillay issued only one statement on 13th March 2009 but said nothing more until the end of the war on 19 May 2009 when worst violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law took place. Her statement on 4 March 2010 at the ongoing 13th session of the UN Human Rights Council that “Sri Lanka should undertake a full reckoning of the grave violations committed by all sides during the war” was too little, too late. The High Commissioner has also said nothing on the detention of quarter of a million internally displaced persons by the Sri Lankan authorities and persecution of journalists and human rights defenders in that country even after the end of the war. The mandate of the Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, Walter Kaelin, who highlighted the conditions of the IDPs at the end of a three-day return visit to Sri Lanka on 29 September 2009 is different.
Stunningly, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights failed to condemn the coup d’etat in Niger by the military led by Major Adamu Haruna on 19 February 2010. The African Union condemned the coup and the Economic Community of West African States suspended Niger on the ground that it had "zero tolerance" for any unconstitutional changes of government.
The failure to condemn the coup d'etat in Niger is not an isolated event. When General Sonthi Boonyaratglin ousted Thaksin Shinawatra's government, put most Cabinet Ministers under incommunicado detention and formed “Administrative Reform Council” in a bloodless coup in Thailand on 19 September 2006, the then High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour failed to condemn the coup.
It might not be a mere coincidence that after the Asian Centre for Human Rights issued a press statement on 22 September 2006 castigating the High Commissioner for its failure to condemn the coup that the OHCHR issued a statement on 25 September 2006 stating that “The forcible and unconstitutional replacement of Thailand’s freely-elected Government on 19 September, the establishment of martial law, the abolition of the 1997 Constitution, the dissolution of Parliament and the Cabinet as well as the disbanding of the Constitutional Court, have raised important human rights concerns”.
When the Director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights subsequently met the officials of the OHCHR in Geneva, he was told that the OHCHR was verifying facts from the regional office in Bangkok and therefore could not express its concerns earlier. This was despite that national and international media had already televised the deployment of the tanks on the deserted streets of Bangkok after the military takeover.
The recent killings of indigenous tribal peoples in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHTs) of Bangladesh that began on 19 February 2010 expose this worrying trend of the OHCHR.
The killings have very negative implications for the peace process. The violence was the worst violence since the signing of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord of 1997 with the insurgent Parbattya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti, and the violence has the potential to undermine the Peace Accord or worse see a return to violent conflicts. Clearly both the killings and a return to conflict have serious implications for human rights enjoyment.
The UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon found the killings in the CHTs sufficiently important to express concern. Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and Vice President of the European Commission was equally concerned, stating on 26th February: “The EU is aware of allegations that the incident involved army personnel and labourers employed by the army” and called upon the Government of Bangladesh “to ensure that the perpetrators of these shameful acts are brought to justice.” The OHCHR said nothing.
Why does “commission” of human rights violations in the CHTs by the Bangladeshi security forces in league with the illegal plain settlers merit the attention of the UN Secretary General and the EU High Representative on Foreign Affairs, but not the OHCHR?
The High Commissioner’s statement on the latest massacre of hundreds of villagers in the sectarian violence around Jos in northern Nigeria which appears to be a clear case of “omission” on the part of the Government of Nigeria is welcome but not sufficient to address its damning silence on grave human rights violations across the world.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay must develop new approaches to enable the High Commissioner to be in a position to respond to the grave human rights violations in the world. Nobody is suggesting that the OHCHR should respond like an NGO. But it does not speak well of the High Commissioner or the OHCHR when regional inter-governmental organisations and international community condemn certain grave human rights violations or coup d’etat and the High Commissioner/OHCHR maintains its damning silence. The High Commissioner must be seen to be leading the international agenda on human rights issues and add a voice, among others, to that of the UN Secretary General.
The UN General Assembly resolution 60/251 establishing the UN Human Rights Council provides that “the Council shall review its work and functioning five years after its establishment and report to the General Assembly”. Many ideas for the review to be held in 2011 are already floating around. The ideas, amongst others, include the establishment of an Office of the President of the Human Rights Council and further to make the OHCHR just another UN agency. The prospect of the OHCHR turning into a UNDP type agency - with its mandate of engagement with the government at any price - is a troubling thought.
Irrespective of the ideas floating around on the review of the Human Rights Council, Navi Pillay must take the leadership before it is too late. [Ends]
 . http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ABOUTUS/Pages/WhatWeDo.aspx
 . UN reiterates Sri Lanka concern, 9 March 2010 available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/sinhala/news/story/2010/03/100309_moon_mahinda.shtml
 . Address by Ms. Navanethem Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights - Introduction of the Annual Report, 4 March 2010, Geneva available at http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=9867&LangID=e
 . Asian Centre for Human Rights, UN Rights Commissioner castigated for not intervening against violations in Thailand, 22 September 2006 available at http://www.achrweb.org/press/2006/THA0206.htm
 . HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR HUMAN RIGHTS URGES THAI AUTHORITIES TO ENSURE RESPECT FOR FUNDAMENTAL FREEDOMS, 25 September 2006 available at http://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=3122&LangID=E
 . UN human rights chief says new approach needed to halt cycle of violence in Nigeria, 9 March 2010 available at http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/Media.aspx?IsMediaPage=true