UN rights chief warns poor countries about recession

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Human rights should not be jettisoned by employers as the recession bites, the UN human rights chief has warned.

"I am very worried about that," Navanethem Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, told the Independent on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of human rights. "Economic rights are just as important as civil and political rights.

"The current financial crisis has had dire and possibly enduring consequences on the global economy. No measure should be overlooked to mitigate the most nefarious effects of the crisis for those who live at the margins of the world’s economy, especially the very poor and people who are eking out a living at subsistence levels."

Ms Pillay, a South African lawyer whose own experience of apartheid made her all the more determined to fight discrimination, argued that "human rights, development and security are all inextricably linked."

Exactly 60 years ago today (wed), on 10 December 1948 the UN General Assembly adopted the 30 articles enshrining universal human rights in the declaration which in effect says "Never again" to world war and the horrors of the Holocaust.

Asked about the Bush administration's detention of inmates without trial at Guantanamo, Mrs Pillay said that in her view, human rights should be placed at the core of internatioal cooperation in counter-terrorism. "There is no denying that those who looked at US leadership to inject new vigour into human rights work have been disappointed in recent years. That is why great expectations are pinned on the forthcoming presidency of Barack Obama," she said, noting his promise to close down the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.

Ms Pillay challenged the position of some states – including China, Indonesia and Singapore – which maintain that human rights are a western notion and should be adapted to the cultures of individual countries.

"We should never accept the argument that some rights fit the traditions of certain cultures, but are antithetical to other customs. Universality is anchored in our common humanity, and not on those shifting historic, cultural, economic and geographic circumstances that critics of universality invoke to shore up their views," she said.

The Chinese government defended its position yesterday after two Chinese dissidents were detained as 300 lawyers, writers, scholars and artists prepared to issue an online charter calling for greater human rights in China to coincide with the UN human rights declaration anniversary.

Wang Chen, the head of the State Council Information Office, said: "Under the precondition of recognising the universality of human rights, all governments and people have the right to adopt different policy measures according to their respective national conditions to seek human rights development best suited to their country."

But some countries had "politicised and ideologised human rights by practising double standards, flying the ’human rights’ flag to negate the sovereignty of other countries and carry out power politics," Mr Wang added.