Often criticised for failing to tackle abuses in authoritarian countries, the UN human rights office has leapt into action recently to denounce leaders clinging to power in Ivory Coast, Tunisia and Egypt.
The marked shift in its response coincides with a rise in pro-democracy movements that have challenged election results or entrenched repression in the Middle East and elsewhere.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay is widely credited with seizing the momentum and showing her Geneva-based operation can move swiftly after tyrants are ousted and facilitate pro-democracy change on the ground, Reuters reports.
“We appreciate the shift in her ability to speak out in real time and address crisis situations as they are happening,” Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, US ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council, told Reuters. “Timing is important.”
“The United States believes the High Commissioner’s office is supposed to be a voice for the voiceless,” Donahoe added.
Pillay sent experts to Tunisia to help shape democratic reforms and investigate past violations, and made it clear her office is ready to help elsewhere.
She denounced killings and abductions as they unfolded in Ivory Coast after a November 28 poll where U.N.-certified results show Alassane Ouattara beat incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo.
On New Year’s Eve, she went a step further, publicly warning Gbagbo and top commanders they may be held accountable for human rights crimes. She flagged reports of two mass graves at the time and allegations of a third one since.
Pillay has blamed unprecedented protests in Egypt squarely on the government of President Hosni Mubarak, accusing it of serious abuses including widespread torture.
“People have a right to protest, and freedom of information is especially important at times like these,” she said in an appeal for calm as one million people took to the streets.
The international criminal justice system now provides the tools to ensure that perpetrators are held to account, according to the former UN war crimes judge.
In a statement on Friday, ahead of visits this month to Israel, the occupied territories and Russia, she warned:
“We now see there is an intense hunger for human rights in the Middle East and North Africa — and of course in other countries in other regions. Governments who ignore these extremely loud and clear warning signals are doing so at their own peril.”
“KNOCKING ON AN OPEN DOOR”
Pillay spoke out on Ivory Coast from her native South Africa, where she took her two daughters to Robben Island, the notorious prison where as a young lawyer she helped win rights for inmates who included Nelson Mandela.