October 26, 2012

To Protect Human Rights in the World

Estonia stands as a candidate for membership in the UN Human Rights Council in 2013–2015 and will hopefully be successful.

Estonia stands as a candidate for membership in the UN Human Rights Council in 2013–2015 and will hopefully be successful.

Members may serve on the council for two consecutive terms – six years in total – which must be followed by at least one-year break. As the UNHRC was established in 2006 to replace the UN Commission on Human Rights, the end of 2012 will see the completion of a six-year membership period for its initial members, which means that its composition will be quite different next year. Unlike the UN Security Council, the UNHRC does not have any permanent members, which means that all its members enjoy equal rights. This creates an atmosphere conducive to the efforts of small states – with only a few diplomats, a small state like ours can still defend its interests and represent itself almost on an equal level with great powers who have dedicated teams of human rights experts many times the size of our entire representation. In addition, UNHRC membership would offer us a great chance to promote our human rights priorities. The final list of these will probably be made public after the elections, but I am positive that it will include all the issues that have been close to our hearts, for example, the rule of law, freedom of speech, the rights of women and children, the rights of indigenous peoples, etc. Still, our voluntary pledges and commitments should give a clear indication of our plans (for the full text of the pledges, see the Estonian MFA’s website: www.vm.ee/?q=en/human_rights/voluntary_pledges).
Let me divide the pledges into two categories – first, our promises regarding domestic activities and, second, Estonia’s activities at the international level.
Pledges concerning activities in Estonia
Estonia pledges to ratify several international agreements which it has previously not found the opportunity to ratify. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Optional Protocol to the Convention of the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict are two fine examples, but there are others too. In hindsight, it seems a little strange that it has taken so much time – 21 years have passed since the restoration of independence – before we start ratifying these agreements, but it is better late than never.
In this connection, the crucial aspect is that these activities continue to improve the human rights situation in Estonia and hence are, above all, in the interests of people in Estonia. In addition, it is clear that states who aspire to become role models for others in the human rights domain – and that is what UNHRC membership means, among other things – have to translate their fine words into action and practise what they preach in equal measure.
Estonia’s activities in the international arena
Estonia attaches great significance to the international system established for the protection of human rights. To demonstrate its credibility and support, Estonia participates in human rights processes in compliance with all statutory requirements – for example, it presents regular reports on various human rights conventions on time, it takes recommendations seriously and it has issued a standing invitation to all UN special procedures. The latter means that Estonia is ready to receive visits from UN special rapporteurs at their discretion. Several special rapporteurs have taken us up on this invitation in recent years.
Moreover, we take part in international human rights efforts with our ‘wisdom and might’, i.e. we put forward our experts to represent Estonia in various bodies and we make financial contributions. The best examples of the latter support include, above all, Estonia’s regular voluntary donations to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), etc. I always stress that Estonia started providing this kind of support as soon as our financial situation allowed us to do so and that we continued to help people more disadvantaged than ourselves even during a very tough economic crisis. The primary reason for this is our full appreciation of the beneficial effects of the activities by support organisations on those who are many times worse off than us, together with the fact that it contributes to law-abiding behaviour and to the endorsement of the human rights component of international law in the whole world.
In addition to improving the human rights situation throughout the world, the principle of helping those who are weaker also characterises, although more indirectly, another related field –humanitarian assistance. This includes donations to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination team (UNDAC). We also declare in the pledges made to the global public that one of the goals of Estonia’s development cooperation for 2011–2015 is supporting human development, including increasing the availability of education and health care by focusing on women and children as the most vulnerable. We try to do this mainly in our long-time priority partner countries for development cooperation – Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Afghanistan – because we are convinced that it is substantially more effective to pursue development cooperation with countries that you are well familiar with.
Our ‘wisdom’-based contributions to international cooperation are mostly made in the form of Estonian experts being elected to various UN bodies. Estonia was a member of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in 2009–2011 and is a full member of the Commission on the Status of Women in 2011–2014. In addition, we serve on the executive boards of the UNDP, UNICEF and UN Women. Furthermore, an Estonian candidate was elected for 2011–2014 as an independent member in the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT) established pursuant to the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT); an Estonian diplomat was nominated for 2011–2013 as a member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues; and an Estonian ambassador has presided over the elections for the Committee against Torture (CAT).
To sum up Estonia’s pledges, it has to be said that we have many ambitious goals. I urge everyone interested in this topic to read the full text of the pledges. They reflect the Estonian government’s political commitments to be fulfilled as a UNHRC member.
So, once again, let me ask why Estonia wants to be a member of the UNHRC for the next three years. A short answer would be: we believe that the human rights situation in Estonia allows us to be part of this prestigious body and that we can make a meaningful contribution to the advancement of human rights on a global scale.
The elections will be held in New York in November.

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