Human rights are universal
LONDON EYE - Stephen Lillie (The Philippine Star) - April 4, 2013 - 12:00am

The latest session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) began in Geneva at the end of February. The Philippines and the UK were founder members of the HRC. The Philippines is currently one of 47 of Council members who are elected on a rotating basis by the UN General Assembly. Term limits mean the UK is not currently a member of the Council but we are hoping to get re-elected in 2014. Which raises the question — why?

The HRC is the UN’s primary human rights body and has a mandate to address all human rights violations and situations. It replaced the UN Commission on Human Rights in a move designed to address major human rights concerns more effectively. And over the last 18 months the Council has increasingly been able to speak with a majority or one voice on issues of concern.

During this time the human rights situation in Syria has been a top global concern. In March the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, described Syria as “a desperate situation of increasingly extreme humanitarian suffering”. The total estimated death toll is now over 70,000. Ten thousand people died in the first two months of 2013, more than in the whole first year of the conflict. The wide range of human rights violations that have occurred amount to crimes against humanity. But what can the HRC really do?

The HRC has established an independent Commission of Inquiry to ensure that human rights violations in Syria are monitored and recorded, so that the perpetrators may be held to account. The HRC has now passed nine resolutions on Syria, the latest in March. The strong language condemning the human rights violations and highlighting the accountability of those involved sends a strong message of support to the Syrian people. The capture of Filipino peace keepers last month showed how precarious the situation is and the need for a government that can command the respect of the people and restore order and respect for human rights. The UK is very pleased that the latest session of the Council again expressed its concern for the Syrian people. The resolution on Syria, backed by a majority of members, sent a strong message of united international condemnation of the abuses that are occurring.

Britain wants to be re-elected to the HRC next year so that we can maximise our contribution to human rights globally. International organisations are only as effective as their members. If a UN organisation fails, it is because its members have collectively failed. Some people argue that international resolutions are interference in the domestic affairs of others. I disagree. It is right and proper that we hold each other to account. States are sovereign, but human rights are universal.

The Philippines has a strong attachment to human rights domestically and in its own region. It can be a force for good including on the HRC, speaking up in support of its values. The hopes expressed during the recent celebration of the EDSA revolution are a powerful reference point for the Philippines and a source of pride. What EDSA did for the Philippines in the 1980s can be an inspiration for many others around the world who are denied such rights.

The Human Rights Council is a perfect vehicle for the Philippines to continue championing human rights internationally.

(Stephen Lillie is British Ambassador to the Philippines)

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