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Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, speaks at Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi yesterday.
Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, speaks at Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi yesterday.

UN's Navi Pillay aims to engage with region

The human rights official visits Abu Dhabi and says there has been progress but work remains to be done.

ABU DHABI // The UN's top human rights official yesterday highlighted improvements in human rights in the UAE while urging GCC states to "value" the contribution made by migrant workers. Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, made the comments during a stop in the capital during the UAE leg of her first regional tour. She is expected to address issues of progress and concern with senior government representatives and members of civil society.

The 10-day trip has been described by Ms Pillay's office as an "unprecedented effort" to engage with the region and gain a better understanding of what is being done to promote human rights. "We believed that the time was ripe to strengthen our relationship with the GCC states, and as a result, achieve closer co-operation on human rights issues as the region goes through an important period of transformation," she told a media briefing. "So far my hopes and expectations have been more than realised. Clearly the winds of change are blowing strongly throughout the region on a number of fronts."

However, Ms Pillay said yesterday, better protection for migrant workers is a "very key issue for this area". "My special message is to value these workers; they are making a huge contribution to the country and are sending their salaries home, which in turn helps their families," she said in an interview. "This is the way they should be viewed, rather than persons who are transitory and open to exploitation just because they are in a powerless position."

While raising issues of some concern, Ms Pillay said she has also been "extremely impressed" by government efforts to improve human rights conditions. The high commissioner said "significant movement" has taken place on issues of women's rights in the four countries she has visited so far. "I urged all of them to maintain and, if possible, accelerate the pace of reform in this area," she said. The high commissioner said she was looking to see how her office could support and provide advice to the six GCC states.

Although she has yet to address the issue of women's rights with UAE authorities, Ms Pillay said she "would welcome" recent moves made by the Government to enable Emirati women who have children with non-Emirati husbands to pass their nationality to their children. "I would cite that as an excellent role model for some of the other states who are still thinking that it's a traditional law, virtually, that the nationality passes through the male line," she said. "I would welcome that the principle of equality is respected, so you can't have discrimination in the law."

The question of the death penalty and the UN's call for a moratorium on the practice, has also been an issue addressed during her visit to the region. "As high commissioner, I am calling for a process to be put in place that would lead to the abolition of the death penalty," she said. Responding to questions about human rights violations in the Palestinian Territories, Ms Pillay said she was planning to visit the region this year.

"The human rights situation in the occupied Palestinian Territories has been a serious concern for me and my office," she said. "Like the secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, I am also deeply concerned about the ongoing Israeli settlements in occupied territory which are illegal under international humanitarian law." A former South African high court judge who also sat on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Ms Pillay was appointed UN high commissioner for human rights in 2008.

In the 1960s she became the first woman to start a law practice in the province of Natal, and went on to defend anti-apartheid activists. "We had endless so called 'experts' coming and telling the whole of Africa what to do," she said. "So I come with a level of understanding about how obnoxious that is, particularly when you don't understand the complexities on the ground." This experience, she said, has dictated her approach to the protection and promotion of human rights around the world.

"I'm not coming to criticise, I'm coming to offer assistance," she said. Ms Pillay travels next to Oman, where her mission ends tomorrow. @Email:zconstantine@thenational.ae

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