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UN's Pillay stresses universality of human rights

Human rights - 29-10-2008 - 14:30
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Navanethem Pillay, (left) with EP VIce President Luisa Morgantini at a press conference, Brussels, 8 October

Navanethem Pillay, (left) with EP VIce President Luisa Morgantini MEP

The universal nature of human rights and the importance of religious freedom. These were two crucial themes stressed by the UN's top human rights envoy when she spoke to MEPs recently. South African Navanethem Pillay was in parliament for a conference to celebrate 60 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The conference dealt with ways in which those who defend human rights - such as journalists, lawyers and trade unionist - could themselves be protected. The often mortal risk they must put themselves through was frequently acknowledged.
She told MEPs, NGO's and representatives of international organisations at the conference that human rights defenders "are at the frontline in monitoring human rights violations and in strengthening the rule of law."
The most striking sacrifice is those who are killed for their views. Speaking to the press later Ms Pillay in particular singled out the courage of Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya. She was gunned down in her Moscow apartment block in October 2006 and the killers have never been found.
"No" to cultural relativism - "human rights are universal"
Pillay argued that "the principles underpinning the 1948 Universal Declaration can be found in virtually all cultures and traditions."

Navanethem Pillay

  • Born Durban, South Africa in 1941
  • Education: University of Natal and Harvard Law School (PhD)
  • Career: First coloured woman under apartheid to open a legal practice
  • South African human rights work: Co-founded the Advice Desk for the Abused. Ran a shelter for victims of domestic violence
  • Judge: International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda 1995-2003 International Criminal Court (Hague) 2003-2008
She underscored the fact that: "A global culture of human rights is predicated on the universality of human rights and their connection with security and development and welfare for all. We should never accept the argument that some rights fit the traditions of certain cultures, but are antithetical to other customs. All human rights are indivisible, entitled to all."
Freedom of expression under threat
She also emphasised that "although the roles of human rights defenders and the press are different, both are crucial to sustaining healthy checks and balances on those who hold power".
On religious freedom she voiced concern that "freedom of expression has recently been denounced as antithetical to freedom of religion or belief". In her view "freedom of religion cannot exist in an environment where freedom of expression is not respected".
Post 9/11 "erosion of international law"
Erosion of human rights have becomes more prevalent after 9/11 Pillay noted. She regretted that the post-September 11 security environment has meant the "erosion of international law". Ms Pillay called on states to comply with their international obligations and for moderation on anti-terror laws.
Ms Pillay heads over 1000 staff in 50 countries dealing with human rights issues. A native of Durban, her legal career took her to the International Criminal Court and the tribunal which tried the perpetrators of the Rwanda genocide.
REF.: 20081027STO40640