Navi Pillay, the highest human rights official in the United Nations, presented the annual report on the work of her office (the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, OHCHR) to the General Assembly last week. Delegates, including several ambassadors, took the floor to publicly reprimand the High Commissioner and her office.
Mid-way through the meeting - as the grilling heated up - a fire alarm went off throughout the UN headquarters.
“You see! When you deviate from the debates of the committee during the interaction with the High Commissioner even the UN system sounds the alert!” said the ambassador for Morocco who was interrupted by the siren and flashing lights after having exceeded his allotted speaking time.
The alarm and the humorous remark were a welcome respite from the tensions that had been mounting in the room, as delegates exited the premises for several minutes.
The alarm spared Ms. Pillay the need to respond to the barrage of questions. When the meeting resumed, only five minutes remained. Ms. Pillay avoided the tougher questions and said that any decisions that had been made by her office were borne out of financial considerations.
The OHCHR has become a principal promoter in the UN system of new special rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons. The African Group and other delegations asked the Ms. Pillay to concentrate on “universally recognized human rights.” Roughly half of all UN member states perceive the efforts of the OHCHR to advance LGBT rights as offensive, given the many pressing human rights issues they face.
The reform of the UN treaty body system, usually called “strengthening” to avoid negative connotations, is another area where the OHCHR is courting controversy. Delegations accused the OHCHR of acting on its own initiative in implementing reforms, ignoring a UN General Assembly Resolution (5/254) that places treaty body reform in the hands of an inter-governmental process of UN member states.
The most controversial charge against Ms. Pillay’s office came from the Russian delegate. He retold how the OHCHR responded to questions from his delegation. The OHCHR claimed it is not bound by General Assembly resolutions and that it would not wait for the result of the inter-governmental process to enact its own strengthening of the treaty bodies.
Several countries, including CARICOM, representing 15 Caribbean states, complained that the OHCHR was making decisions without consulting member states. The OHCHR decided to move the meetings of both the CEDAW and Human Rights Committee to Geneva from New York, ostensibly to save money. The move is proving to be very controversial, especially among less affluent states who do not have delegations in Geneva.
The OHCHR services the whole of the UN human rights framework and receives 3% of the regular budget of the UN, plus additional voluntary contributions. Earlier this year Ms. Pillay’s mandate was extended for another half term (2 years).