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Foreign Secretary attends UN Human Rights Council in Geneva

"This is the time for us to show that we utterly condemn the actions of the Libyan Government" said Foreign Secretary William Hague at the UN Human Rights Council today.

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Speaking at the UN Human Rights Council the Foreign Secretary said:

“Last week the council spoke with one voice to affirm the universal rights of people in Libya and to condemn the gross and systematic violations of those rights by the Libyan authorities, including the use of heavy weaponry against civilians, the deaths of women and children and cold blooded incitement to violence.

The resolution we agreed, announcing an independent international commission of inquiry for Libya, shows the council working as it was intended to do. Indeed the unanimous response to the crisis in Libya here in the Human Rights Council and at the United Nations Security Council is nothing short of remarkable. The international community came together in a way it has not done before, setting aside differences in the face of a challenge to the very notion of what we instinctively regard as the basic rights of humankind; the right to be free from terror and oppression, the right to life and the right to raise, gather and express views without the dread of violent retribution.

Today we have signalled that crimes will not be condoned, will not go unpunished, will not be forgotten and this is a warning to anyone contemplating the abuse of human rights in Libya or in any other country; stay your hand; there will be a day of reckoning and the reach of international justice can be long.

We must now maintain the momentum we have attained to ensure there can be no impunity for crimes committed in Libya and to help bring about an immediate end to the violence.

Mr President, no member state has ever been suspended from the council before and it is not a decision that we should take lightly. However this is the time for us to show that we utterly condemn the actions of the Libyan Government. A regime that has failed so shamefully in its responsibility to its people and that has been referred to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court should not be allowed to sit on the Human Rights Council. We urge our fellow UN member states to support the Draft General Assembly Resolution that will be debated in New York this week.

We must also be vigilant about the potential humanitarian crisis which could develop in Libya. The full scale of the need is not yet clear but where there is need and where we can meet that need Britain will act, and Britain’s Department for International Development is already on the ground in neighbouring countries and is ready to assist.

As others have already signalled for their countries the United Kingdom will also support a resolution in the, on the human rights situation in Iran, which would establish a special rapporteur.

Historic events are unfolding in the Middle East; millions of citizens are demanding their rights and look to the international community for support. We have a responsibility to encourage governments to meet the legitimate demands of their people and where necessary to protect the rights of their people.

It is a moment of great opportunity in the Middle East. If change and development can be achieved peacefully it will be the greatest advance in world affairs since Central and Eastern Europe changed so dramatically twenty years ago and many of their countries entered the European Union. If instead violence takes hold the risks for human rights and international security will be grave. We must support those working peacefully for more open societies and economic reform in the Middle East so that in the months to come we see better observance of human rights across the region. This should include a particular emphasis on the economic and social empowerment of women.

Respect for human rights rests on foundations that have to be built over time; strong institutions, responsible and accountable government, a free press, the rule of law and equal rights for men and women. The United Kingdom stands ready to lend its support and expertise to those countries looking to develop in this way.

I would like to thank the High Commissioner for her tireless work in the this area, in particular her prompt despatch of a rapid reaction team to Tunisia and her commitment to send a human rights mission to Egypt. I would also like to commend the Government of Tunisia for pledging to sign major UN human rights treaties, and the Egyptian Government’s commitment to oversee the transition to civilian democratic governance. Both have made important steps in their reform programmes but there is still a vast amount to do. The expectations of the Tunisian and Egyptian people are high, momentum on reform needs to be maintained so people know their governments are serious about change. During this time of unrest it is important that the Human Rights Council shows strong leadership, making it clear that human rights abuses are unacceptable, no matter the context.

Finally we believe three things are necessary for the council to operate effectively now and in the future. It should use independent experts and structures and work closely with civil society and national human rights institutions. Secondly we should maintain a constructive dialogue to help meet our obligations which is why the universal period review has the potential to be such a valuable process. And thirdly, where states fail to meet these obligations the UN, including this council, should act to address violations as they occur. We will continue to champion the independence of the OHCHR so that the High Commissioner and her office are able to continue their valuable work.

We all have a common interest in a council better able to fulfil its mandate and to champion the rights and freedoms on which our collective security and mutual prosperity depend. Only an effective human rights council will have credibility with the people whose rights we as states are obliged to protect and will be able to rise to the challenge of the extraordinary times in which we are living.

Published 1 March 2011