BRUSSELS / GENEVA – The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Wednesday opened the first ever UN human rights office in the European Union, and said she hoped this development would mark a new era of closer cooperation between the UN human rights system and European institutions based in Brussels, Strasbourg and Vienna, as well as with individual EU states.
The new Brussels office is the 11th regional office set up by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which is headquartered in Geneva but has never before opened a national or regional office in Western Europe.
“OHCHR was only founded 16 years ago, so it is still a young organization,” Pillay said. “We already have 10 other regional offices in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia, and we are now present in 55 countries around the world in all. Europe was in many ways the missing piece in the puzzle, so it is a real pleasure for me to open the office at the EU’s headquarters here in Brussels.”
Pillay said the prime objectives of the new Regional Office will be to strengthen engagement with European countries in the implementation of international human rights standards as well as to forge stronger partnerships with regional organizations such as the European Union and its relevant institutions, including the Fundamental Rights Agency. The office would also work with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, she said.
The new office will help to promote and follow up on human rights standard-setting, policy making and implementation in Europe, as well as address the EU’s role in human rights promotion, protection and empowerment around the world.
“The EU is, of course, already an important partner for us, both as a donor and as a strong moral voice on many human rights problems facing people all over the world,” Pillay said. “When the EU speaks, people listen. When the UN speaks on human rights issues, people also listen, and when we are in tune we can be an important force for change.”
She noted that EU countries themselves face a number of human rights challenges. “This office will help EU countries in their efforts to combat racism and discrimination, and to tackle human rights violations related to migration and poverty, as well as deficits in other economic and social rights, particularly for minorities such as the Roma,” she said. “A particular challenge in recent years has been ensuring that counter-terrorism measures do not undermine human rights standards.”
“We will also seek to ensure the integration of the UN’s human rights principles in external EU policies and activities,” she said, citing technical assistance, peace-keeping and peace-building operations, development and mediation efforts as well as EU trade initiatives.
During her Brussels visit the High Commissioner also took part in a joint OHCHR-EU conference on combating all forms of discrimination – with a particular focus on discrimination based on race, gender and disabilities. She held meetings with EU Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner, President of the European Parliament Jerzy Buzek and other senior EU officials and parliamentarians, as well as with the Belgian Foreign Minister Yves Leterme and representatives of the 23 other UN organizations already based in Brussels.
During her meeting with M. Leterme, the High Commissioner thanked the Government of Belgium for enabling OHCHR to set up the new Regional Office in Brussels. She also paid tribute to the role of the Swedish Government, which currently holds the EU Presidency.
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