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Mr. President of the General Assembly,
Madame High Commissioner,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Welcome to Switzerland and to Geneva! Geneva, capital of human rights and the seat of the Human Rights Council; Geneva, city in which we are celebrating the three-hundredth anniversary of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau this year. Geneva, where I have the honour to welcome you in the name of the Swiss government on the occasion of the opening of the nineteenth session of the Human Rights Council.
It is not for the first, but already for the nineteenth time, that the Human Rights Council is fulfilling its fundamental role: the protection of the individual. And it is doing so very effectively - today, no one can deny that its record is positive.
This institution is young, but its value is not measured by its age. It has demonstrated this by reacting in a timely manner to grave human rights violations and dealing with ongoing issues, even when these are of a difficult or sensitive nature. The items on the agenda of the current session are proof of this: freedom of expression on the Internet, discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation, and the human rights situation in the Syrian Arab Republic are to be debated.
Switzerland is convinced that UN institutions need to be complementary if they are to ensure coherent action and have a real impact on the ground. We all have to work towards the improvement of the UN system so that each of its institutions, in its own area of responsibility, is able to act in a rapid, appropriate and non-selective way when serious violations of human rights occur. Respect for human rights is an international obligation for each and every state, deriving not just from UN membership and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but also from customary law. If any state is unable or unwilling to meet this obligation, then it is up to the international community to take action. In fact this is not a choice we are facing, but a duty.
It is a duty which becomes more evident every day, especially in Syria. Despite three special sessions of the Human Rights Council, the efforts of the Arab League and the condemnation by a vast majority of the General Assembly, the Syrian government continues to violate the human rights of its citizens. Indeed, violations are even increasing in a disturbing manner. Numerous Syrians – including many children – have already paid the highest price there is: with their life.
Switzerland condemns in the strongest possible terms all human rights violations committed in Syria. We call on the Syrian authorities to immediately put an end to the use of violence and repression against the civilian population, and to take measures in order to hold those responsible fully accountable. In this regard, we call on the Syrian government to cooperate fully with the Human Rights Council, in particular its Independent Commission of Inquiry.
Furthermore, Switzerland calls on the Syrian authorities to immediately allow free access for all humanitarian actors to the population in need and to let them operate without obstruction. Switzerland supports all initiatives aimed at helping the people affected by the violence, especially the proposition by the International Committee of the Red Cross to allow for a humanitarian pause every day.
In Switzerland’s view it is important that the humanitarian crisis in Syria does not deflect our focus from finding a political solution. A solution to the current crisis in Syria can only be found through dialogue - sincere and inclusive dialogue which has to guarantee the respect of the human rights of the Syrian people. Switzerland stands ready to give its support to all efforts undertaken in this regard.
It is very important that this unacceptable situation remains high on the agenda of the relevant international bodies until such time as the people of Syria can live a life in freedom and dignity. Switzerland welcomes the efforts of the United Nations Secretary-General, of the President of the General Assembly, of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and of the League of Arab States to bring this violent repression to an end and find a political solution. In this context, Switzerland welcomes the nomination of the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr. Kofi Annan, as Special Envoy of the Secretary Generals of the United Nations and the League of Arab States.
Since its accession to the United Nations a decade ago, Switzerland has been engaged in efforts to strengthen the UN System to enable it to respond to human rights violations in an adequate manner. Our role in the creation of the Human Rights Council, in its continuous improvement and in particular in strengthening its mechanisms and procedures, underlines this commitment.
The promotion and protection of human rights are central values of Swiss policy, both inside Switzerland and at the international level, because the defence of human rights is an essential pillar for those who want to build peace and security. In fact, Switzerland considers its efforts for the promotion and protection of human rights, as spelled out in our Constitution and in international human rights conventions, as one of its raisons d’être. In our efforts, we pay particular attention to the most vulnerable groups, notably children but also women and minorities. These efforts also consist in defending freedom of expression and promoting the universal abolition of the death penalty.
Such commitments have greater chances of success if they are approached through partnerships. It is therefore our view that governments need to work closer together with their economic actors, ensuring that their activities are not in violation of human rights. Addressing this issue, Switzerland has played an active role in the development of important new instruments at the multilateral level, and this remains a matter of priority for us.
We also consider it important that the Council pays greater attention to issues relating to the environment, and at this session we are pleased to support a cross-regional initiative which will contribute to a better understanding of the relationship between human rights and the environment.
To promote human rights also means to rebuild. Combating impunity, dealing with a dark and difficult past, restoring the rule of law and securing the rehabilitation of victims who have suffered unspeakable pain: these actions are at the heart of a reconstruction process which societies that have experienced grave violations of human rights have to go through. The principal objective of this process is to secure lasting peace. This is well worth the creation of a new Special Rapporteur on this topic, and the Swiss government welcomes this step.
It is one thing to have laws in place, but they also have to be implemented. We consider the improvement of the implementation of international humanitarian law to be one of the greatest challenges to be overcome if we are to ensure greater protection for the victims of armed conflicts. In this context, Switzerland welcomes the outcome of the 31st International Conference of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent which took place recently.
Switzerland has always promoted a vision of a world in which human rights not only have universal value, but are also universally respected. It is for this reason that we are convinced there is a need for instruments capable of monitoring the implementation of human rights conventions in an effective and credible way. In the international human rights framework, the problem often does not lie in the lack of conventions, but in their insufficient implementation. Therefore we have to focus on improving the effectiveness of the existing instruments for human rights protection.
Since it was first created, the Universal Periodic Review has often been called the most remarkable of the Human Rights Council’s innovations. This is true. But it is also true that the decisive phase is still ahead of us. In the course of the second cycle which begins in May, the implementation of the recommendations accepted during the first cycle are to be verified. In Switzerland’s opinion, it is also up to the state that originated a recommendation to evaluate the progress made in the area concerned. We believe that the Universal Periodic Review can only be recognised as an effective instrument if it promotes perceptible and tangible improvement to the respect for human rights on the ground. The efficiency of this system will be measured by its capability to bring us closer to our goal.
I would now like to say a few words about peaceful demonstrations. They are nothing new, nor are they limited to any particular region. Last year, however, this phenomenon took on major proportions. Not only in North Africa, but also in Europe and North America, many thousands of citizens opted for this means of demanding respect for their economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights.
We believe that this movement is more widespread than it appears. Therefore, following the panel discussion on “human rights in the context of peaceful demonstrations” organised by Switzerland, we now propose that the dialogue on this important topic should be continued within the Council. The right to peaceful demonstration derives from a number of fundamental individual rights: the right to freedom of expression, the right to freedom of assembly and association, the right to life, as well as to protection against arbitrary arrest and execution. The purpose of the new Swiss initiative is to use dialogue as a means to reach a better common understanding of this phenomenon, not only of the stakes, but also of the associated challenges, in order to better protect human rights in the future. Let us listen to the expression of hope instead of fomenting bitterness, and construct a future together instead of opposing its visions.
On behalf of Switzerland I would like to conclude by warmly thanking the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Madame Navi Pillay, and all those who work with her both here in Geneva and in the field, for their immense and indispensible efforts in favour of the promotion and protection of human rights. I can assure you that Switzerland will remain a strongly committed partner; a partner who will continue its efforts in order to ensure that the Office of the High Commissioner is able work effectively and in complete independence in the interest of the global community.
Thank you for your attention. I wish you a highly fruitful and constructive session.