UN rights chief cites problems in Syria, Bahrain

The assessment by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay sets the tone for the UN`s 47-nation Human Rights Council.

Last Updated: Sep 11, 2012, 09:46 AM IST

Geneva: The UN`s top rights official laid out the world`s most significant human rights issues on Monday, criticising Syria and Bahrain but also mentioning problems in Western countries such as France and Greece.

The assessment by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay is important because it sets the tone for the UN`s 47-nation Human Rights Council, whose month-long session opened on Monday.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, on a visit to commemorate Switzerland joining the world body a decade ago, challenged the council to focus attention on five areas, including discrimination, violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and women`s rights.

"It is an affront to our conscience that millions of people still struggle against poverty, hunger and disease. These conditions violate their fundamental human rights," he said.

Pillay argued that respect for human rights is key to peace, development and humanitarian efforts, and she began by citing Syria`s civil war as an area of grave concern with devastating consequences for civilians.

Activists say up to 26,000 people have been killed in Syria since an uprising began in March 2011 against President Bashar al-Assad`s regime.

Next on Pillay`s list was Bahrain for handing down what she called harsh prison sentences against 20 prominent rights activists and opposition figures, including seven who face life in prison. Bahrain`s UN Ambassador Yusuf Abdulkarim Bucheeri defended his nation, saying its judiciary held a fair trial attended by diplomats, human rights representatives and news media.

Pillay spoke of human rights problems in Colombia, Ivory Coast and Congo, then mentioned France and Greece. She also noted issues in Kenya, Maldives, Mali, Mauritania, Mexico, Myanmar and many other countries.

"I am also worried by the recent forced closure of Roma camps in France, which have affected hundreds of people, making them even more vulnerable and exposed to a whole range of human rights concerns," Pillay told the packed chamber.

"I acknowledge a number of steps that have been taken by the government, but further efforts must be made to address this situation" and integrate Roma, or Gypsies, into society, she said.

Pillay also noted problems in Greece, where there has been a surge in racist attacks against immigrants with dark skin.

"Equally troubling are violent xenophobic attacks against migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in recent months, for example, in Greece," Pillay said.

She also criticised the United States, along with Belarus, China, Japan, Saudi Arabia and authorities in the Gaza Strip for their use of the death penalty in recent cases.